Section 31 Diminishes the Message of Star Trek

Written by Dan Carlson@minutiaeman

Published July 9, 2020

If you’ve explored other parts of my website, you likely noticed that I’ve been a big fan of Deep Space Nine since I first watched it in 1993. DS9 was my first and favorite Trek, and a big part of what attracted me to it was the exciting stories that explored the consequences of trying to do the right thing, often succeeding but occasionally failing to uphold the values that were introduced in TOS and TNG. So it might come as a surprise when I say that despite my love for DS9, I really don’t like the idea of Section 31 in the Star Trek universe.

I certainly understand the appeal of stories involving Section 31. In DS9, Luther Sloan made for an excellent foil to Julian Bashir. Whereas Bashir was fascinated by spycraft and upheld the traditional morals of Starfleet, Sloan was a consummate liar who openly endorsed the belief that the ends always justify the means. And in Discovery, ignoring for the moment concerns about her background (a big ask, I know), Mirror Georgiou is a fascinating and sometimes surprising character who embodies the worst of Humanity but seems to be showing the occasional spark of compassion for others. The existence of Section 31 creates the potential for stories that explore whether the traditional Star Trek ideals of cooperation, honesty, and peace can survive and thrive in a hostile universe seemingly filled with people who don’t share the same convictions.

This is a big part of what I love about DS9. Many of its stories took a more practical, relativistic approach to ethics and morality. In other words, though DS9 never rejected the classic Star Trek principles, it did take a hard and sometimes uncomfortable look at how one could manage to hold on to those principles in situations where our morality offered no easy solutions. Sometimes characters failed to uphold those morals fully. But though many characters in DS9 embraced some level of moral ambiguity, none of the primary characters ever rejected those principles outright.

The difference between questioning the application of those morals and rejecting them outright is demonstrated by two episodes that, coincidentally or not, aired sequentially in DS9’s sixth season: “Inquisition” and “In the Pale Moonlight”. In the first episode, Bashir (and the fans) are introduced to Section 31 through an elaborate holodeck scenario designed to test Bashir’s loyalty. In the second episode, Sisko conspires with Garak to bring the Romulans into the Dominion War, committing numerous illegal acts along the way. At first glance, these stories espouse similar philosophies: they both involve clandestine operations to protect the Federation from its enemies, using actions that are at best immoral and at worst wholly illegal. They both present circumstances which are treated as extraordinary, and they both represent the actions taken as necessary under those circumstances.

And yet despite those similarities, the central character in each conspiracy arrives at a different conclusion. Sloan states on multiple occasions that he has no moral qualms about the actions that he takes, that protecting the physical institution of the Federation justifies any and all actions that Section 31 deems necessary. Furthermore, he argues that these actions are necessary on an ongoing basis. Yet Sisko takes the opposite view. True, his actions contributing to the deaths of Senator Vreenak and Grathon Tolar were unquestionably immoral. But consider Sisko’s famous quote from the end of the episode:

“So... I lied; I cheated; I bribed men to cover the crimes of other men; I am an accessory to murder. But the most damning thing of all is... I think I can live with it. And if I’d have to do it all over again... I would.”

— Benjamin Sisko, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “In the Pale Moonlight”

There’s a lot of subtext in that quote. When Sisko recounts his crimes, he is explicitly acknowledging that his actions were wrong, even though they brought a beneficial result. He even declares that for this situation, he would do it again. But that’s not the same as endorsing these actions as acceptable under all circumstances. That is what gives Sisko some slight redemption at the end of the episode, allowing him to remain a hero: Sisko acknowledges that his actions were wrong, but justified on some level, in this one circumstance. Section 31 argues that if it’s necessary, it’s not wrong. Section 31 violates legal and moral authority as a matter of course.

And that’s what leads me to the problem with the very existence of Section 31 in Star Trek.

Since its inception, one of the core premises of Star Trek has been that the future is promising, that despite the problems of the present, Humanity is capable of overcoming those problems. In the 1960s, those problems were most evident in the Civil Rights Movement and protests to the Vietnam War. The Original Series demonstrated by example that racial prejudice could be overcome, that nations could coexist peacefully with each other, and that military conflict was not the only solution to problems. The United Federation of Planets exemplified the belief that Humanity’s better nature could prevail.

In so many episodes, we saw our Starfleet heroes avoiding or minimizing combat. We saw them embrace unknown cultures and ideas. We saw them eliciting trust by acting trustworthy. Certainly there were exceptions (most notably TOS: “A Private Little War”). But those exceptions proved the rule of Star Trek’s message: that peace could be achieved through peaceful means.

Yet the existence of Section 31 calls that premise into question. If this secret cabal has been operating since the foundation of Starfleet and the Federation, how much has it tainted the moral standing of the organizations our heroes have served? Furthermore, how much of those organizations’ very existence could be attributed to unknown actions by Section 31? It’s a scary thought to consider that the paragon of peaceful coexistence that is the Federation would not exist without secret, possibly violent, intervention by agents who are under no oversight or control by the people they claim to protect.

Section 31 provides the Federation—and the Star Trek franchise—the excuse of having things both ways. It allows the public face of Starfleet our protagonists to claim moral superiority through their own actions, and yet that moral standing might not have been possible without the immoral actions of Section 31. It lets the writers tell stories involving ethically questionable actions while at the same time absolving the protagonists of direct responsibility for those actions, despite the fact that they directly benefit from those actions.

To put it simply, it makes it look like the Federation got to where it was by cheating.

These are not new ideas; numerous other fans have expressed similar concerns since the first appearance of Section 31. The writers of DS9 tried to address these concerns but never really gave a satisfying answer. And as we get more stories involving Section 31, especially with the second season of Discovery, more and more questions about the morality of both the Federation and of Star Trek itself must be asked.

I’m deeply skeptical about the impact of the upcoming Section 31 series. On one hand, I see the potential for interesting stories involving Mirror Georgiou and hopefully Ash Tyler, who are both interesting though very flawed characters. And yet I don’t think that either Georgiou or Tyler are good candidates to be the hero of a Star Trek series. The producers of the upcoming show have promised to uphold the optimism of previous shows, and I certainly won’t judge a show until I’ve watched it. But I still believe that the very premise of a secret organization—that answers to no one and violates the beliefs of the very people that they claim to protect—undercuts many of the core messages of the Star Trek franchise.

“Interesting, isn’t it? The Federation claims to abhor Section 31’s tactics, but when they need the dirty work done, they look the other way. It’s a tidy little arrangement, wouldn’t you say?”

— Odo, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “The Dogs of War”