In fact, the entire principle of industrialized war is just that. Because manufacturing is just as or even more important to the war effort than the battles themselves, factories become military targets. And it’s not soldiers working in those factories. Even in the modern conception of targeted assassinations, either by elite teams or skybound killbots, there’s what is euphemistically called “collateral damage.” In other words, noncombatants. People that are deemed acceptable to kill because they were in close proximity to someone else. Who it’s also fine to kill.
It gets more insane from there. The idea behind the atomic bomb was to make warfare so horrific that it would no longer be an option for anyone. When the United States dropped it on Japan, twice, they made a few calculations. How many American killed and wounded would it take to capture Japan? How would that be measured against the death toll of two atomic bombs dropped? America made a simple calculation and erased over two hundred thousand lives.
It sounds monstrous. But what if that act saved a million lives? Would it be permissible then? What if it saved only five hundred thousand? Three hundred thousand? What if it saved only one more life than it took? Would it be permissible then? It’s an impossible question to answer. Partly because our brains simply aren’t wired to think that way. According to modern research, human beings can really remember up to a hundred and fifty “friends” at once. (Think about that next time you look at anyone’s Facebook friends list.) These hundred and fifty are “us.” Everyone else is “them.” Slaughter larger than this begins to take on the form of the abstract.
That question is what this episode of DS9 is all about. In the sixth season, DS9 decided to tackle some very Trek-like questions about war. What’s allowed? At what price victory? How does morality relate? Here, it asks two questions: Is surrender, and five generations of slavery, permissible if it saves almost 900 billion lives? And how sure can we be about the future?
The episode begins with the arrival to the station of four genetically enhanced individuals. Unlike Bashir, these all had unintended side effects, making them unable to hide as he does, and Federation law makes it illegal for them to actively participate in society. In a subtle nod to how Starfleet feels about them, their “quarters” are little more than a slightly refurbished cargo hold. There’s Jack, the ostensible leader, who is very much one of those television kuh-raaaazy style characters that tend to get on my nerves. He’s hyperactive, arrogant, and prone to violence; Lauren, an erotomaniac who seems almost more cat than human; Patrick, an older but still childlike man; and lastly, there’s Sarina, who is nearly catatonic, presumably overwhelmed by the constant barrage of sensory information.
The initial idea is that Bashir will inspire them with his normalcy, but this gets derailed when they happen to witness now-Gul Damar’s speech. He’s been promoted to head of the Cardassian government after Dukat’s breakdown and capture. It’s a relatively simple speech, calling for peace between the Federation and the Dominion, but the genetically enhanced people instantly pick it apart and construct the story of Damar’s rise to power. They correctly suss out that he’s a pretender to the throne who murdered an innocent princess and deposed the king, and now finds himself in league with a black knight he can’t control.
Bashir is astounded by this and successfully petitions to get them access to whatever is available on the Dominion, including classified information. This dovetails with Starfleet accepting Damar and Weyoun onto the station for new peace talks. Watching recordings of the proceedings (The Dominion insisted everything be recorded to show how sincere they were about peace, because of course they did.), the group of mutants (as they call themselves) pick apart Weyoun’s true motives using the native Dominionese (Jack catches Weyoun in a deception based on tense usage.), what they really want (Patrick figures out it’s a specific system because they all refuse to look at it.), and what they’ll use it for. (Sarina realizes a harmless-looking fungus can be used to manufacture limitless amounts of ketricel-white.)
At first, these mutants are a boon. But nothing lasts forever. Using Starfleet intelligence reports, they determine that the Federation has no chance for victory in a war against the Dominion. After 900 billion people die, the Federation will be conquered and enslaved for five generations, after which there will be a rebellion on Earth which will grow into a new Federation. Makes more sense to skip the genocide part and go right into the slavery if it will save that many lives, right?
How are they doing this? Bashir explains briefly by telling Sisko that minor changes tend to factor out over the long term. Therefore, projections grow more accurate into the future rather than less. SF fans (which hopefully some of you might be) will recognize this as psychohistory, the fictional discipline of Hari Seldon in Asimov’s Foundation series. It’s an extremely seductive idea, especially to someone with a history background. But there is one very important bit that Seldon forgot, and in point of fact, both Bashir and the mutants do as well.
Those words are important. “Tend to” does not mean “will,” though we like to read it that way. When Starfleet rejects the idea of surrender, the mutants decide that if they give the intelligence information directly to the Dominion, the resulting war will only kill two billion. That’s better than 900. So, they knock out Dr. Bashir (He’ll recommend surrender, but won’t be a party to active treason.), tie him up, and go to met with Damar and Weyoun.
Unfortunately for them, Jack forgot to factor one thing into his plans: Sarina. Jack and the others left her behind -- she’s nearly catatonic, after all, and therefore not much use in espionage. Bashir convinces her to help him by playing on her unspoken feelings for Jack. When he confronts the mutants, he points out that they thought they could predict what would happen in the entire galaxy when they couldn’t even predict what would happen in a single room. Minor changes, single lives, solitary actions tend to factor out. That doesn’t mean they will, and Sarina was one of those.
Were the mutants wrong? I’m not entirely certain. I know how everything ends (and for what it’s worth, they do make a few predictions in this episode that come true), but that seems unfair. How many people are permissible to kill? No one can possibly know that. We’re not wired for it, and our minds rebel at so awful an equation. The mutants were, in fact, trying to save 898 billion lives. Whether they were correct or not in their assumptions, their motives were at least noble.
Appropriately for Trek, the episode ends on a somewhat hopeful note. The mutants, somewhat chastened, are returning to the Institute, but instead of trying to predict the future, they’re going to shift to planning. Four genetically enhanced brains working on a way to defeat the Dominion. Of course, that was precisely the kind of thing that led to the Eugenics War and Khan Noonien Singh in the first place.
Next up: Ferengi on a mission.