“My father used to say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. I laid the first stone right there. I’d committed myself. I’d pay any price, go to any lengths, because my cause was righteous. My… intentions were good. In the beginning, that seemed like enough.” Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) Star Trek Deep Space Nine, In the Pale Moonlight
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
With the increasing probability that elements of the self-proclaimed Islamic State brought down a Russian airliner in the Sinai last week, it is important to ask what we are willing to do to protect innocent lives. I am not just talking about the situation in Syria and Iraq, where tens of thousands have died and millions have been displaced; but around the world from a hybrid terrorist state that knows no creed but victory or death.
The question is not just about fighting the Islamic State as this is already happening. Though there is no formal alliance and many of the states involved have their own interests at heart, the war now involves the United States, some NATO allies, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and a number of Arab states, not to mention the kaleidoscope of different warring parties in Iraq and Syria. Until last week the United States was content to fight using airpower alone. Now it appears that albeit with great hesitancy the Obama administration is slowly expanding the fight to include ground troops, although at the time this is limited to special operations troops and advisers.
As the war expands, we do have to ask hard questions, chief among them how far we will go to fight the Islamic State. The fact that no matter what course of action the United States, our allies, and the other combatants take, each one has its drawbacks, as well as benefits. Each one involves a certain amount of risk, and the fact is that the Islamic State does believe that the United States, Europe, Russia, Iran, and Israel are their greatest enemies and is working to attack each one. This poses a question of making alliances with disparate nations, some of which are mortal enemies of each other. But sometimes necessity makes strange bedfellows, just ask Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin.
So today, I am posing a reflection from the television series Star Trek Deep Space Nine. I think that among the Star Trek series that my favorite is Deep Space Nine. Of course all of the Star Trek series and movies deal with ethics, philosophy and morality to some extent; but Deep Space Nine is perhaps the most interesting to me. Don’t get me wrong I think that the Original Series and Start Trek the Next Generation were and are leap years ahead of most television series when it comes to addressing ethical, moral and existential issues, but somehow living in the post 9-11 “War on Terrorism” world I find Deep Space Nine to be the most compelling. I think that is that the fact that the moral issues get blurred which attracts me to the series, and to this episode in particular.
I think that using the medium of science fiction we can think about real life issues in a new, and maybe more creative way than we might. I think it to do this is to think outside the traditional box, which sometimes limits our discussion, and consideration of all of the factors involved. But the subject is uncomfortable because it makes us face truths that we might not want to see, and parts of ourselves, our beliefs, and our values that can become clouded in times of crisis.
One of my favorite episodes is from season six and is entitled “In the Pale Moonlight.” The episode deals with the unsavory matter of contriving a reason to get the Romulan Empire to join with the Federation and the Klingons to fight the Dominion-Cardassian alliance that is threatening those entities as well as potentially the entire Alpha Quadrant. I have included a link to the conclusion of that episode here:
The ethics of this episode seem very timely as I look at the new phase of the conflict that the United States has been engaged for the past thirteen years. The fact is that in spite of our appeal to higher ideals we are having to make alliances with powers that are only slightly less unsavory than ISIS, powers whose polices have help ISIS grow. In a sense it is the classic scenario of making a deal with the devil to defeat one’s enemy. Of course this is not a new phenomena, individuals and nations have made such deals, sometimes with mortal enemies throughout history.
Unfortunately we usually judge such decisions based on their results, rather than wrestle with the ethical issues involved and how we might behave in similar situations. For me the philosophical and ethical issues involved in such alliances have a special interest and as such I tend to notice or recall instances where I saw, read or heard something that makes a connection to an ethical or moral dilemma faced by policy makers and planners today.
Some of the issues involved for policy makers are related to the traditional Just War Theory, and what is called the “Supreme Emergency” exemption. This exemption basically posits that when faced with a supreme and existential emergency a person or state may engage in behaviors that ordinarily would be considered unethical if the situation were not of a supreme emergency.
Of course such decisions in the real world are difficult. Those who have a system of beliefs that help them define right and wrong behaviors, even if they are not codified in law may struggle with such decisions, while those who act according to what they deem necessary or expedient, unbridled by religious, philosophical or other similar codes may not, instead making their decisions based on what appears to be necessary at the time.
This Deep Space Nine episode is remarkable because we get to see an actor playing a military commander dealing with the morality of the course of action that he is taking. In one of the early scenes Captain Sisko expresses his doubts relating to the morality of a decision that he is making in a war that has already consumed the lives of tens of millions of people.
After an incident where a Federation starship was destroyed, Sisko went to Elim Garak (Andrew Robinson), an exiled Cardassian intelligence officer to uncover any evidence about Dominion-Cardassian collusion to attack the Romulans. When none was uncovered and Garak’s sources on Cardassia were compromised he agreed to allow Garak to manufacture evidence in order to get the Romulans into the war on the side of the Federation and Klingons. Sisko compounded the situation by having the Klingons release a master forger who was on death row to help Garak. Sisko knew it was wrong and confided in his log:
“Why I didn’t listen to the voice in the back of my mind telling me not to believe a word he said, I’ll never know… But it didn’t take long for me to come face to face with the fact that I’d made a mistake.”
When the former prisoner gets drunk and attacks the owner of a tavern on the space station Sisko was in a bind. He wanted no evidence that the man had been on his station and in order to keep Quark, the bar owner quite had to bribe him. Sisko again expressed his doubts in his personal log:
“Maybe I should have put a stop to it right there. Maybe I should have said, “Thank you very much for your input, Mister Garak, I will take your suggestion under advisement,” and then gone back to my office and forgotten the whole thing. But I didn’t. Because in my heart, I knew what he was saying made sense.”
Even so Sisko still had doubts:
“That was my first moment of real doubt, when I started to wonder if the whole thing was a mistake. So I went back to my office. And there was a new casualty list waiting for me. People are dying out there every day! Entire worlds are struggling for their freedom! And here I am still worrying about the finer points of morality! No, I had to keep my eye on the ball! Winning the war, stopping the bloodshed, those were the priorities! So I pushed on. And every time another doubt appeared before me, I just found another way to shove it aside.”
When nations feel they are engaged in a life and death struggle, those who serve as policy makers, planners and military commanders often make uncomfortable compromises with their own religious, ethical or philosophical codes. Sisko continued down the path despite his doubts but justified his actions by the fact that Starfleet had approved them:
“Maybe… I was under more pressure than I realized. Maybe it really was starting to get to me, but I was off the hook. Starfleet Command had given the plan their blessing and I thought that would make things easier. But I was the one who had to make it happen. I was the one who had to look Senator Vreenak in the eye and convince him that a lie… was the truth.”
The forgery was completed and the Romulan Senator secretly arrived on the station to examine the evidence and as he did so all Sisko could do was wait, confiding in his log:
“So all I could do was wait… and see how masterful Tolar’s forgery really was. So I waited… tried to catch up on my paperwork, but I find it very difficult to focus on criminal activity reports, cargo manifests… So I went back to pacing, staring out of the window. I’m not an impatient man, I’m not one to agonize over decisions once they’re made. I got that from my father. He always says, “Worry and doubt are the greatest enemies of a great chef. The soufflé will either rise or it won’t – there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, so you might as well just sit back and wait and see what happens.” But this time the cost of failure was so high, I found it difficult to take his advice. If Vreenak discovered that the data rod was a forgery, if he realized that we were trying to trick them into the war it could push the Romulans even farther into the enemy camp. They could start to openly help the Dominion. If worst came to worst they could actually join the war against us. I had the distinct feeling that victory or defeat would be decided in the next few minutes.”
It did not work, Vreenak discovered that the data rod was a forgery and threatened to expose Sisko’s deception and possibly bring the Romulans into alliance with the Dominion. When Sisko’s actions blew up in his face and his deceit was revealed he was not happy and resigned himself to face the consequences:
“So it all blew up in my face. All the lies and the compromises, the inner doubts and the rationalizations – all for nothing. Vreenak was furious. I can’t say I blamed him; I’d have reacted the same way. After telling me in no uncertain terms that he intended to expose this “vile deception” to the entire Alpha Quadrant, he got back in his shuttle and headed home. There didn’t seem to be anything more to do… so I went back to work. Two days later we got the news.”
Sisko learned in a Starfleet communication that Vreenak’s shuttle had blown up and that is was suspected to be the work of the Dominion. When Sisko found that Vreenak was dead he went to Garak and forcefully confronted him, striking him in the process. He accused Garak of sabotaging the senator’s ship and killing him as well as the forger, Tolar. Instead of backing down Garak confronted the results and the ethical issue. The heated exchange between the two men is fascinating:
Garak: If you can allow your anger to subside for a moment, you’ll see that they did not die in vain! The Romulans will enter the war!
Captain Sisko: There’s no guarantee of that!
Garak: Oh, but I think that there is. You see, when the Tal Shiar finishes examining the wreckage of Vreenak’s shuttle, they’ll find the burnt remnants of a Cardassian optolythic data rod which somehow miraculously survived the explosion. After painstaking forensic examination, they’ll discover that the rod contains a recording of a high-level Dominion meeting, at which the invasion of Romulus was being planned.
Captain Sisko: And then they’ll discover that it is a fraud!
Garak: Oh, I don’t think they will! Because any imperfections in the forgery will appear to be a result of the explosion. So – with a seemingly legitimate rod in one hand, and a dead senator in the other, I ask you, Captain – what conclusion would you draw?
As Sisko’s anger subsided Garak continued:
“That’s why you came to me, isn’t it, Captain? Because you knew I could do those things that you weren’t capable of doing? Well, it worked. And you’ll get what you want: a war between the Romulans and the Dominion. And if your conscience is bothering you, you should soothe it with the knowledge that you may have just saved the entire Alpha Quadrant. And all it cost was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a bargain.”
Shortly thereafter Sisko found out that the out that the deception was successful as Garak had said it would be. The Romulans who recovered the damaged data rod believed that it was genuine and declared war on the Dominion-Cardassian alliance and had entered the war on the side of the Federation. He completed his personal log:
“At oh-eight-hundred hours, station time… the Romulan Empire formally declared war against the Dominion. They’ve already struck fifteen bases along the Cardassian border. So, this is a huge victory for the good guys! This may even be the turning point of the entire war! There’s even a “Welcome to the Fight” party tonight in the wardroom!… So… I lied. I cheated. I bribed men to cover up the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But most damning of all… I think I can live with it… And if I had to do it all over again… I would. Garak was right about one thing – a guilty conscience is a small price to pay for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant. So I will learn to live with it…Because I can live with it…I can live with it. Computer – erase that entire personal log.”
My guess is that before this war is over, there will be men and women serving in positions of responsibility in our or allied militaries, policy makers and government officials who will make similar deals, violating their own moral codes and even laws in order to defeat the Islamic State and prevent acts of terror against their citizens. Most, like Sisko will not be happy but will live with their decisions. The fact is that long asymmetrical wars in which nation states have to fight non-state terrorist entities get really ugly and the longer and more bloody that they become the more decent and honorable people will make decisions like Sisko and resort to actions that in normal times they would never countenance.
This is nothing new. Those who have fought in such wars throughout history have found ways to “live” with actions that they would not approve of had things been different. Wars such as the one that we are fighting and continue to fight in the years ahead have a corrosive affect on the human spirit. They corrupt and destroy even when they are “successful.”
The question is: Can we live with it? Sadly, as much as I hate to admit it, in a similar situation I think like Sisko, that I could condone or be complicit in something like this. I too could probably convince myself that the end justified the means and that I could live with it, against ISIL. If in fact an ISIL bomb downed the Russian airliner, it is a watershed, and points to worse things to come, and we will have to ask the question, “can you live with it?”
Of course it is possible that this was an accident, truthfully, I do as tragic as it would be, hope this it the case.
Of course there is always the possibility that ISIL or one of its allied groups did it. But another possibility cannot be ruled out; that a bomb was planted bye third party, possibly the Russians themselves, hoping to implicate ISIL. That my friends is far to frightening to contemplate as there are too many nations that have both the capability and a motive to do this.
There are some other issues that I want to discuss about this war using the Star Trek motif, and like this they will be unsettling.