Sony Pictures Entertainment, the Japanese-owned conglomerate, has cravenly caved in to terrorism by cancelling plans to release The Interview, a satirical film portraying the assassination of Kim Jong-un, the dictatorial, clownish leader of North Korea.

In the past few days, Sony has dropped the Christmas day release of the $44 million movie, co-directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and indicated it will not be distributed any time soon.

Sony capitulated after the four largest theater chains in the United States — AMC, Cinemark, Carmike Cinemas and Regal Entertainment — and Cineplex Entertainment in Canada disclosed they would cancel bookings of The Interview, which North Korean officials have lambasted as “an act of war.”

The chains were reacting to a massive hacking attack on Sony computers and an ominous e-mail threatening violence against theaters that show the film. The United States has blamed the North Korean government for this crude campaign of intimidation.

Regrettably, Sony has handled the crisis badly.

No sooner had the chains pulled The Interview than Sony chimed in, “We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theatergoers.”

Rather than dumping the movie so abruptly and unceremoniously, the chains could have and should have beefed up security in and around theatres and thereby assured the public that the screening of The Interview posed no clear and present danger to anyone. Instead of taking this sensible step, the chains panicked and gave in to hysteria and North Korean blackmail.

To make matters worse, the Motion Picture Association of America — the lobbying group of the Hollywood movie industry — remained conspicuously silent and was thus complicit in Sony’s cowardly and disgraceful capitulation.

Sony, as well as the chains, have set a dangerous precedent they may yet regret. Due to their callow response to North Korean extortion, they have played fast and loose with the precious concept of artistic freedom and creative expression, which Americans — and Canadians –hold so dear.

More ominously, Sony and its partners have implicitly emboldened terrorists everywhere. What comes next? Will more movies meet the fate of The Interview? Will publishers be hesitant to publish books that some foreign leader dislikes? Will Broadway reject plays that do not conform to conventional standards? Will newspaper reporters be muzzled?

It’s a slippery slope.

The civilized world should not give in to an impoverished, isolated and puny police state like North Korea, which has been misruled by one autocratic family for decades now. Lest we forget, North Korea is a Stalinist dictatorship that flouts human rights and the rule of law, suppresses its people, threatens its neighbours and destabilizes the region. It’s also a regime that helped Syria build a nuclear reactor, which Israel destroyed in a justifiable air raid several years ago.

With its hacking attack on a major corporation, North Korea has crossed a red line that no nation should tolerate for a moment. President Barack Obama struck the right note yesterday when he declared that the United States would “respond proportionally.”

Let there be no doubt that North Korea should be held accountable for its criminal cyber crimes.

In the meantime, Sony should exert every effort to ensure that the American public will be given the opportunity to see The Interview, regardless of its merits. Michael Lynton, the chief executive officer of Sony, claims that he has not succumbed to pressure to mothball the film.

I hope he’s sincere. North Korea should not be calling the shots. Indeed, it should be punished.