Counter-terrorism in “Star Trek: Into Darkness” [spoilers]

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This weekend I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness. The first Star Trek remake remains the gold standard for sci-fi movies as far as I’m concerned, but this one came close to matching that standard.The movie kept my interest and I thought it struck a good balance between action-packed battles, quip-driven character development, and more profound philosophical and political messages. The film’s most obvious and pervasive political commentary deals with the morality of drone strikes and justice without due process, which happens to coincide with Obama’s recent speech on American counter-terrorism policy.

The film’s essential point on the matter seems to be that America and any country that seeks justice against those who have harmed it have lost their way if, in their search for justice, they resort to the same despicable tactics that were used against them. It really is uncanny how directly this movie engages the exact questions that Obama tried to answer during his speech: In what tactical situations should we kill from afar with no due process? What are the moral justifications? Kirk must deal with these questions as he decides whether or not to remotely kill a fugitive that has taken refuge in an area with which the Federation has strained ties; an area which could spark a devastating war if the operation goes astray. Sound familiar?

Faced with this choice, he opts against the remote strike and takes a landing party to the surface. This sets off a chain of events that defines the remainder of the movie. Yet while the message of Kirk’s initial choice is clear – killing someone without due process is wrong – it’s unclear what message we’re supposed to get from the rest of the film. After all, there are several points when total catastrophe and failure are only averted because of sheer luck. And, in the end, they still start a conflict on an enemy planet that will likely provoke war. At the end, it seems convincing that the gut decisions Kirk made were the right ones; he did what he knew was right, and, despite the obstacles, everything worked out in the end. Yet, if supporters of drone strikes were to read into this movie as far as I am, I don’t think they would be swayed. What if things had gone wrong? What if Khan had destroyed the enterprise and then gone on to commit xenocide against humans and other species? Would Kirk’s decision to follow his moral compass been justified then? That’s a much harder question.

In the end, between the explosions and friendly banter, the movie makes a convincing case for following principles and questioning the arguments that our leaders make. After all, if Kirk had fired the photon torpedoes, a war surely would have started and due process would have been violated. Surely, unquestioning obedience to authority and the disregard of just principles would not have had good consequences either – intergalactic war and the deterioration of morality. Still, the movie doesn’t refute the point that pro-drone advocates make, and which I find the most convincing: in some situations, the choice of using drone strikes can do more to prevent dire consequences than they do to cause them. The question now must be, weighing both moral and tactical considerations, which situations meet this criteria? and who gets to decide? 

I believe that no situations meet these criteria – the legal and moral principle of due process should not be compromised by an executive branch with little accountability for it’s decisions. I won’t pretend that it’s an easy decision, or that others will legitimately differ on this issue. Yet I’m grateful that with Obama’s speech, the increasing media coverage, and even movies like Star Trek, this debate will get the attention it deserves from the public. 

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