May 24 2024

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Retro Review: Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges

8 min read

Section 31 sends Bashir to spy on a Tal’Shiar leader and determine whether a degenerative condition could be used as a cover for his murder.

Plot Summary: Romulan Senator Cretak negotiates to get her ships repaired, then prepares to leave for a conference on Romulus that Bashir is also planning to attend. He wakes to find Sloan from Section 31 in his quarters, insisting that in between speeches on Dominion biogenic weapons, Bashir must gather data on their Romulan allies. Though Bashir advises Sisko about the secret assignment, Admiral Ross suggests to Sisko that Bashir use the opportunity to learn more about Section 31. While traveling on the Bellerophon, a disguised Sloan tells Bashir about a Tal’Shiar leader named Koval, whom Starfleet believes may try to break up their alliance. Sloan believes Koval may be suffering from Tuvan Syndrome, and if so, Section 31 wants to maneuver Cretak into Koval’s position by killing Koval and making his death appear to be a result of his illness. Bashir is furious that his medical skills are being used to plot an assassination, though Sloan points out that if Koval remains in power, the Federation could lose the Dominion War. Cretak is impressed with Bashir’s diplomatic skills at the conference, so Bashir confides to her that he fears Section 31 may be trying to murder Koval, something they could only accomplish if they have an operative within the Romulan Empire to carry out the task. Soon after, Cretak is caught looking in the Tal’Shiar database for the names of potential traitors, and Bashir is interrogated. A Romulan court convenes at which Bashir testifies that he confided in Cretak to protect the Federation-Romulan alliance from the meddling of Section 31. Koval believes most of Bashir’s story, but announces that Sloan’s interrogation has revealed that there is no Section 31; instead, Sloan is a member of Starfleet Intelligence seeking vengeance on the Tal’Shiar for the death of his mentor. When Sloan tries to grab a weapon to kill Koval, the desperate man is shot and disintegrated. Back on the Bellerophon, Bashir tells Ross that he doesn’t believe the broken Sloan on Romulus was the same ruthless agent who recruited him. Bashir accuses Ross of using him to protect the real Federation spy on Romulus – Koval – who can now continue to protect Starfleet interests. Ross claims to be sorry that Cretak may be executed, but not sorry to have saved the lives of young Starfleet officers, to which Bashir replies that Ross has trampled on everything those men and women are dying to protect. Later, a living Sloan visits Bashir to point out that the doctor is the sort of principled person that Section 31 exists to save.

Analysis: I don’t know why I ever start to trust any character on Star Trek with a rank higher than captain, given the number of evil commodores and admirals we’ve seen over the years…from incompetent Stocker to broken Decker to murderous Cartwright to worm-possessed Quinn to unhinged Satie to tyrannical Leyton. But we hadn’t had an evil admiral episode in a while when Ross showed up, and he seemed so reasonable in his dealings with Sisko that there was no reason to believe wartime didn’t bring out the best in Starfleet. I thought Ross’s knowledge of Section 31 meant that he didn’t like having his own position’s authority challenged, not that he was in bed with an organization with the power to undermine the Federation. I’m not sure that Ross is an improvement on Leyton, who wanted to put Earth under martial law, force everyone to submit to blood tests to prove that they weren’t changelings, and bump off Sisko’s entire crew for failing to fall into line. Leyton was acting on his own initiative, with the help of just a few subordinates and elite Starfleet cadets; apparently he didn’t have the wide resources of a secret organization to quietly kill off his enemies in the name of Federation security. Usually, when we’ve seen someone commit an atrocious deed in the name of Starfleet, it’s been a rogue officer overstepping what all the other officers agree should constitute acceptable behavior. Now we know not only that there’s a secret organization answering to no one, but that the top brass at Starfleet are happy to let that organization do dirty work not even Starfleet Intelligence would touch. I’ve tended to argue with people who don’t think Deep Space Nine is real Star Trek that it’s easy to believe in the highest of principles when there’s no real threat to a majority of your citizens, when the Klingons and Romulans can’t strike at the heart of the Federation and no one ever argues Borg civil rights because the Borg aren’t individuals, whereas an attack by someone stronger makes it necessary to rethink exactly how far every admirable individual as well as every organization may need to go to preserve those principles. The Dominion War may be terrible, but I can’t really see how it isn’t necessary; pacifism would mean surrender, the loss of all civil liberties to the Founders, enforced by the Jem’Hadar. I may not like all the decisions made by those on the front lines of the war, but I understand the ethical balance they’re trying to maintain – the needs of the many over the needs of the few, as it were.

Section 31 is something else – an organization supposedly founded at the time of the Starfleet charter and named for its clause excusing extreme measures to counter extreme threats. Sloan claims it has existed continuously in peacetime as well as wartime, doing the very things a society founded on broad principles of liberty and non-interference is meant to deplore. I think I’d have an easier time with above-board war crimes than with “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges.” Ross could have tried to recruit Bashir directly, the way O’Brien was brought in by Starfleet Intelligence to perform shady spy work for a less critical cause than protecting the Federation-Romulan alliance (which was forged by another event of great moral ambivalence, an assassination carried out by Garak after a broadly worded imprimatur by Sisko). Bashir might have gotten huffy the same way he did with Sloan about how it’s his job to save patients, not look for ways to exploit their illnesses, and he’d have been just as irate about being used to set up Cretak, but this is the same Bashir who along with his fellow augments thought the war should be ended as quickly as possible even if it meant surrender and a loss of liberty. If Ross had said, “Look, we need to protect Koval, who’s our greatest asset in keeping the Romulans in the war,” Bashir would likely have gone along with whatever plan Starfleet came up with, or used his enhanced brain to come up with a better one. We’ve been given no reason to believe that Section 31 is so much better at what they do (or even so much more ruthless) than Starfleet Intelligence, so why does Ross turn to them? Nominally it’s an issue of interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign power, which Bashir points out is explicitly forbidden by the Federation charter, except we’ve seen Starfleet officers do it before, particularly with the Klingons. Kirk’s headfirst plunge into the Eminiar-Vendikar war did not get him court-martialed. And surely the assassination of a Romulan senator counts as greater meddling than trying to trick a bunch of Romulans into keeping one person in power while sending another to prison, yet Sisko didn’t feel it necessary to resign from Starfleet, nor even, so far as I can tell, to explain to Starfleet that their blanket authorization of forgery had encompassed murder as well. However one feels about most of the terrible things we’ve witnessed during Starfleet wars, they’ve either been under the auspices of Starfleet Command or explicitly denounced (sometimes just to keep the peace, as with Captain Maxwell’s attacks on Cardassians, and sometimes because someone has to take the fall, as with several Maquis stories).

Section 31 feels like an attempt to have it both ways – to proclaim that this is still Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek and to insist that, really, Gene Roddenberry’s ideals can’t possibly survive without people who fight for them by going against everything they’re supposed to represent. It’s a cynical and ugly innovation, one that bothers me much more than anything any specific character does. It suggests that the highest principles of the Federation, universal cooperation and respect, must be built on a foundation of self-interest, distrust and dirty dealing. And that reduces all of Star Trek to yet another science fiction series – maybe more realistic, more like Babylon 5 or the more recent Battlestar Galactica, but not the unique franchise that transformed science fiction and its place in the popular imagination. It doesn’t feel like anything new and creative, either, more like something snatched from DS9’s contemporary shows like The X-Files, which also did episodes in which hospitals and medical conferences were full not of optimistic doctors but of military people looking to use deadly conditions as weapons. It’s easy to see in retrospect that “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” is a precursor to “When It Rains…,” the episode in which Bashir will realize that the Founders’ disease was engineered by Section 31 to exterminate the Dominion, so the scenes in which the Romulans are overly curious asking Bashir about the Quickening become especially creepy. It’s possible that Bashir’s own research was used to create the illness that infects Odo and very nearly triggers genocide. I can’t imagine Picard or Nechayev or Janeway at her worst putting up with Section 31. Not even Kirk in his bitterest “Let them die!” tirade about the Klingons was actively working to slaughter the entire race of his perceived enemies. I agree with Bashir that in attempting to save young Starfleet officers from war, Ross and Section 31 have begun to unravel everything that Starfleet is supposed to represent. And when I look at how how the organization is retconned in the alternate history of Into Darkness, one thing I think that film unquestionably gets right in terms of Star Trek values is that Section 31 would never remain a secret while fighting ugly wars throughout the 23rd century. If the true mission is exploration, the dirty tactics of underhanded violence should exist only as the occasional, crucial diversion, not as something perpetuated throughout the ages as the bedrock of this society.

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7 thoughts on “Retro Review: Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges

  1. I always assumed that Admiral Ross was being played by Section 31 in this episode, just as Bashir and Sisko were. It never occurred to me that the mission was Ross’s idea and that he recruited Section 31 to do the dirty work; I assumed that the entire plan came from 31. At every juncture, Bashir’s best option appears to be to go along with Sloan, until he’s complicit in the mission. That’s what makes Section 31 such a great villain: there’s always another layer and a hidden agenda. The greatest adversary is not an external foe (Klingons, Romulans, etc.), but “the enemy within”.

  2. It is my personal theory (ok “headcanon”) that Admiral Cartwright and his co-conspirators in Starfleet (Colonel West, Lt. Valeris, etc) were Section 31 operatives, which is (IMO) quite likely, especially given the backstory established for Section 31 both on DS9 and on Enterprise. Enterprise in particular as it establishes that Section 31 was willing to conspire with members of enemy powers for the supposed benefit of Earth, and later the Federation.

  3. One of the reasons they chose not to promote Sisko past Captain, even though we often see him acting as an admiral would in any real navy, is that admirals in Star Trek are usually terrible people. That includes Kirk, who as an admiral ultimately used that authority to appropriate a starship command (ST:TMP) because he was so convinced that only he could save the day!

    Ross’s association with 31 was shocking because they’d actually built him up to NOT be a terrible person, and here he was doing terrible things.

  4. I have viewed the episode numerous times It appears that Ross is indeed a good and honorable man who is trapped by the responsibilities of his position. Picard remarked how hard it was to send crew on a dangerous mission, putting their lives in jeopardy. This must weigh heavily on the heads of commanders. I believe there is a scene in Patton where the general, in a moment of unguarded reverie, thinks about the uncounted number of troops he has had to send to their deaths. Yes, Section 31 is devious, underhanded, and duplicitous, but in times of war certain “niceties” have to be set aside (thus the title). And yet I am struck by the comment Tasha Yar made in “Yesterday’s Enterprise” when she said that she always knew the risks that donning a Starfleet uniform entailed. Toward the end of the DS9 episode where they find the crashed Dominion warship (I forget the title temporarily) Dax tells Sisko that even though he may mourn and grieve for the dead and lost, they as soldiers were proud and honored to wear the uniform.

  5. I didn’t like that they had “Section 31” in ST:ID… I felt that it didn’t belong there, a mismatch of sorts, but that’s just me…

  6. The reviewer has missed a key point here. Admiral Ross (indeed prob a good portion of the admiralty) are desperate at this point. Ross never makes it 100% clear, but the implication is he is allowing Section 31 to do what they are doing for the collective good of the Federation, because options are running out. The Admiral is a good man, but he has difficult if not impossible decisions to make. Prior and subsequent episodes that feature him make this apparent.
    I keep wishing the reviewer had a copy of The DS9 Companion. It clarifies a lot of the reasoning, choices and narrative choices of the series that get her back up.

  7. I wonder to what extent the “everybody above a captain is evil/incompetent” comes down to lazy writing. It makes Our Heroes seem ever so valiant if they have to fight against people who outrank them in the name of Federation principles.

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