Posts Tagged ‘targeted killings’


The crew of the USS Enterprise ponders an ethical dilemma in the latest film, “Star Trek: Into Darkness”.

Reeling from a series of deadly terrorist attacks, the Federation dispatches the Enterprise on a vengeance mission.  The target?  A terrorist hideout deep within sovereign Klingon territory.

Armed with dozens of long-range torpedoes, the Enterprise silently parks just inside the neutral zone, as the crew debates their options.  Is it ethical to kill from such a range?  Is it human?

In the end, Kirk shelves the long-range strike idea in favor of a night raid on the Klingon homeworld.

Of course, his reasoning has nothing to do with violating the sovereignty of a major power.  Instead, Kirk yields to the Prime Directive of sci-fi combat, which states that space combat can only take place when ships are a.) within visual range, b.) on the same two-dimensional plane, and c.) aforementioned ships must fire broadsides at one another.

This rule, of course, holds true despite all the advances in beyond-visual-range technology pioneered in the 21st Century.  Sci-fi script writers have long realized that long-range missile combat lacks suspense.  A shootout on the Klingon homeworld is no less ethical than a long-range missile strike…but it’s a lot more exciting.

And, perhaps that’s why there’s such hysteria about “drone ethics“.  Drones are yet another step removed from the battlefield.  Indeed, drones alter the notion of what it is to be a warrior:  their pilots return to their homes at the end of a combat mission  A recent proposal to offer valorous awards to drone operators was met with universal snark and mockery.  In fact, many manned aviators even argue that drone operators aren’t really pilots.

In short, we expect our warriors to be more like Captain Kirk–even though Captain Kirk’s reckless disregard for regulations would hardly make him a good captain.  Given the cinematic Kirk’s penchant for insubordination and sexual harassment, we would have expected him to be drummed out of Starfleet years ago.

Well, either that or perhaps promoted to Chief of Starfleet’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Task Force.


BlogTarkin’s first foray into Star Trek comes from guest blogger Matt Ford, who blogs at Basic Illusions and can be found on twitter.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine can barely be called Star Trek. Instead of a gleaming spaceship racing across the stars, we have a decrepit space station orbiting a backwater wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant. Instead of a playboy captain who seduces a different green woman each week, Deep Space Nine is led by a haunted widower raising his son alone. Gone are the strident soliloquies on justice and humanity’s noble future. Starfleet officers now wage wars, orchestrate assassinations, and condone genocide. Gene Roddenberry’s utopia is in shambles.

Deep Space Nine

Deep Space Nine

Maybe Roddenberry expected too much from us; he was nothing if not optimistic. Amidst intense social and cultural turmoil, a widening war overseas, and the ever-looming specter of nuclear annihilation, Roddenberry envisioned humanity at its intellectual, technological, and moral pinnacle in his television series Star Trek. Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D), embodies Star Trek’s moral authority and evolved perspective. “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives,” he blithely tells a 21st-century human in one of the films, “We seek to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” To this end, The Next Generation is rife with episodes featuring recreation on the holodeck, mishaps during shore leave, and otherwise-playful adventures among the stars.

Such interludes are few and far between on Deep Space Nine. The Dominion, a totalitarian empire from the Gamma Quadrant led by a species of immortal liquid shapeshifters known as the Founders, invades the Alpha Quadrant. With the ability to clone legions of Jem’Hadar soldiers and construct starships at an unparalleled rate, the Dominion brings the Federation to the brink of defeat within a year. One of the Dominion viceroys, a Vorta named Weyoun, draws up plans the conquest of Earth and the brutal subjugation of humanity – a necessary measure, he notes, because of the species’ resistance to authority.

Against this unprecedented threat, Captain Benjamin Sisko, the show’s main character and moral compass, gives no speeches on human nature. He doesn’t lecture the Founders on the virtues of inalienable rights or the inevitability of liberal democracy. To bring the Romulan Star Empire – one of the Alpha Quadrant’s three great powers, along with the Federation and the Klingons – into the war, Sisko participates in a successful plot to assassinate a Romulan senator and blame his death on Dominion operatives. Sisko is no Picard – he fights back, by any means necessary.

This concept is not foreign to Americans at war. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus across the Union and incarcerated thousands of rebel sympathizers. Franklin D. Roosevelt imprisoned 150,000 Japanese-Americans without cause. Harry Truman dropped the only two nuclear bombs against civilian populations in the history of warfare. George W. Bush conducted mass warrantless wiretaps of Americans and housed hundreds of foreign detainees without charges at Guantanamo Bay. Barack Obama is currently conducting a highly-classified drone warfare program in multiple countries. And those are just the presidents. “The ends justify the means” is far from a trite cliché – it is a long-standing American wartime doctrine.

Even Bush and Truman would blanch at the Federation’s most egregious violations of its espoused principles. A few months before open hostilities with the Dominion, a rogue conspiracy within the Federation known as Section 31 secretly uses Odo, an exiled Founder allied with Starfleet, as a carrier for a “morphogenic virus.” Odo transmits this virus to the rest of his species, which lies dormant for years until manifesting itself as a debilitating, incurable illness that forces the Founders into solid form and eventually kills them. Section 31’s goal, according to its agent Luther Sloan, is to eliminate the Founders and then defeat the Dominion forces in the ensuing chaos. When the crew of Deep Space Nine find the cure (a feat apparently beyond the vast scientific resources at the Dominion’s disposal, according to Weyoun), the Federation Council – analogous to the United States Congress and the United Nations General Assembly – orders Starfleet not to divulge the cure to the Founders, recognizing the effect it would have on the war effort.

The Federation Council’s strategic thinking is cold but perfectly reasonable. The Founders’ shapeshifting abilities are ideal for intelligence work and covert action. Moreover, they demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for using them by manipulating the Federation, the Klingon Empire, and the Cardassian Union into war prior to their invasion. Once the disease’s deleterious physical effects manifested themselves, the entire Dominion intelligence network would be exposed and, in a single blow, eliminated. Who could pass up such an opportunity in wartime?

The Dominion itself exists as protection for the Founders against what they call the “solids” – humanoid races incapable of shapeshifting. Their subjects are genetically engineered to regard the Founders as gods. They fulfill the same role in Dominion government as a monarch or a constitution – the absolute source of all law. Without them, there is no Dominion. It would be as if a rogue element of the KGB engineered a virus that killed only every CIA operative behind the Iron Curtain, and their CIA handlers, and all the analysts, officers, and bureaucrats in Langley, as well as the House of Representatives, the Senate, all nine justices of the Supreme Court, and the President of the United States – and no one else. Even the phrase “surgical strike” seems too blunt for such a targeted maneuver.

Killing spies is practically customary in a war – most European nations that abolished the death penalty in the latter half of the 20th century included exemptions for wartime espionage – but military strikes against national leaders are virtually unheard of.1 Using biological weapons for such a purpose is unrealistic, and conducting a full-scale genocide to accomplish it is unthinkable. Yet in our supposedly morally-superior future, such actions are not only undertaken by private individuals, but implicitly sanctioned by the government of the Federation itself.

But are we viewing genocide through an anachronistic lens? Perhaps. Genocides in the modern world, or any other age in human history for that matter, are not undertaken for strategic or tactical purposes; genocide has never served a military purpose. It is also predicated on the inclusions of non-combatants, which no Founder can truly be considered. One of the distinguishing features between the Holocaust undertaken by Adolf Hitler and the mass killings of Mao, Stalin,2 and other 20th-century totalitarians is the desire to extinguish. As Nancy Gibbs noted in her profile of Hitler in TIME’s millennium issue on the most important figures of the 20th century,

If all Hitler had done was kill people in vast numbers more efficiently than anyone else ever did, the debate over his lasting importance might end there. But Hitler’s impact went beyond his willingness to kill without mercy. He did something civilization had not seen before. Genghis Khan operated in the context of the nomadic steppe, where pillaging villages was the norm. Hitler came out of the most civilized society on Earth, the land of Beethoven and Goethe and Schiller. He set out to kill people not for what they did but for who they were.Even Mao and Stalin were killing their ‘class enemies.’ Hitler killed a million Jewish babies just for existing.

This emotional, visceral aspect distinguishes the morphogenic virus from the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, and other genocides. If we abide by the clinical definition from the Genocide Convention, the virus undoubtedly qualifies. Yet if we assess the mens rea of the Federation, we find it insufficient to justify subsequent prosecution. Moreover, the virus exists in a paradigm in which “defensive genocide” is not contemplated. Such a concept is fundamentally abhorrent in the real world, but perfectly viable in Deep Space Nine. On two separate occasions during the war, the Dominion leadership commits or attempts to commit genocide: once, when they attempt to trigger a supernova in the Bajoran system that would destroy Deep Space Nine and the entire Bajoran species, and again when the Dominion forces massacre the Cardassian population on Cardassia Prime shortly before the war’s end. If the choice is between the wholesale slaughter of Federation citizens – a likely prospect given the Dominion’s track record – and wiping out the Founders with biological warfare, can the Federation’s decision truly be condemned? If we establish the common law principle that killing a person is justified in self-defense, can we extend that to the annihilation of a mortal enemy in the fog of war? These are weighty questions.

What is clear, however, is that by even asking the question, we’ve deviated greatly from the elevated utopia envisioned by Gene Roddenberry. The American playwright Arthur Miller once wrote that, “An era can be said to have ended when its basic illusions are exhausted.” By the end of the Dominion War, the Federation, once a beacon of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in our dreary contemporary age, has been brought low by the slow poison of necessity.


1Although Israel routinely targets militant leaders in the Palestinian territories and the United States has used decapitation strikes against al-Qaeda leadership figures, virtually no examples exist in the modern era of wartime assassinations of enemy heads of state or heads of government. Even military operations targeting specific commanders on the battlefield are rare: in the 20th century, only Operation Anthropoid (the British intelligence assassination of Reinhard Heydrich) and the U.S. Navy’s downing of Isoroku Yamamoto’s plane over the Pacific spring to mind.

2The Holodomor notwithstanding.