Whenever people talk about terrorism, one of the first things that comes up is how difficult it seems to be to define. We haven’t quite found a universally accepted definition yet, but most people agree on a few points. Firstly, terrorism involves violence, or at least the threat of violence. Secondly, this violence is used to try and achieve political change. And, thirdly, it will often be directed at civilians. The other point that tends to comes up when we discuss terror is how hesitant we are to label those whom we agree with as terrorists, even if their strategies are remarkably similar to groups we condemn. In many ways, Star Trek is a pop cultural outlier in how it deals with terrorism. Unlike the bulk of Western (particularly American) television, Trek doesn’t ascribe to the easy characterisation of terrorist=bad, anti-terrorist=good.
Given how much time the franchise has devoted to terrorism, I want to focus on one key, underlying principle that runs through its major depictions. No matter how sympathetic (or unsympathetic) terrorists are in Star Trek, they are always a product of their own societies. To illustrate this, I want to talk briefly about some of the most prominent terrorist groups in Star Trek.
The Bajoran Resistance
The Bajoran Resistance Movement, featured in both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine , is a remarkably straightforward depiction of a terrorist group. The Bajorans are trying to free themselves of colonial invaders (the Cardassians) who have brutally subjugated them for generations. Over the course of DS9, we hear story after story of Cardassian cruelty with comparisons to Nazi Germany.
When we are presented with the Cardassians’ view of the occupation, the audience is encouraged to be skeptical, and to expect deceit. The depiction of the Bajoran people brings into focus some of the most notable aspects of Star Trek’s attitude towards terrorism. First, that terrorism is the last resort of subjugated people. Second, that terrorism can actually achieve political change. And third, and perhaps most significant, that terrorists as individuals are worthy of redemption, forgiveness, and love, even when they have committed acts of great violence.
We are encouraged to root for former Bajoran terrorists, like DS9’s Major Kira (Nana Visitor herself has said that Kira was a terrorist), and are excited and relieved to see them find peace and form relationships. We are reminded that this sense of peace exists precisely because of the success of their terrorist campaigns. Even when we see Major Kira deal with trauma and regret, her time as a terrorist is part of what makes her ‘good’, defending her people from injustices committed against them. Even when DS9 tries to lean into the moral ambiguity of Kira’s past (e.g. revealing her involvement in civilian deaths) she always remains a fundamentally sympathetic character.
Not all Trek terrorists are so obviously ‘the good guys.’ The actions of the Maquis are not portrayed as immediately sympathetic. However, even when the group openly antagonises main characters, Maquis episodes always leave room for the terrorists to explain their motivations to the audience. Even characters who outwardly hate the Maquis take time to reflect upon the genuine hardships they have faced. Although Star Trek: Voyager has been accused many times of not doing enough with its Maquis characters, there is something significant in the ease with which Voyager’s writers were able to integrate Maquis into its main cast of characters. Once again, we see former terrorists as admired, responsible characters.
This is not to say that Star Trek only ever examines the perpetrators of terrorism. More recently, the franchise has also depicted terror victims. One of the most obvious examples of this is the Xindi attack on Earth in Enterprise. The Xindi are among the outliers in Trek terrorism, as most of their screen time on the show is dedicated to showing the pain and rage of their victims. We watch the crew process the Earth attack, with the characters’ desire for revenge shown as the understandable response to a grievous wrong.
However, perhaps surprisingly, we still come to see the Xindi as a complex group with some genuinely compelling motivations. It is eventually revealed that the Xindi acted out of fear, trying to defend themselves from a n existential threat. The show does not absolve the Xindi of wrongdoing because of this, but it does push its audience to try and consider their perspective.
Vulcan Logic Extremists
Of course, there are some terrorists whom Star Trek chooses not to redeem at all. The Vulcan Logic Extremists shown in Discovery, for example, are dismissed entirely as xenophobic fanatics. Despite this rejection of the group’s motivations, the show still holds on to one important feature of previous terror portrayals. Even though Enterprise outright condemns the extremists’ ideology, it also shows them as responding to real changes in their society, even if they have reached the wrong conclusion about these changes. In this instance, Star Trek encourages us to consider those underlying tensions that already existed on Vulcan, and not just the violent reaction of the fanatics.
So, what is the key takeaway from all this? For me, it’s that Star Trek sees terrorism fundamentally as an outcome of social conditions. While the moral judgement it makes on individual acts of violence vary throughout different series and episodes, at the core of almost all these portrayals is the belief that terrorists commit acts of violence because something in their society lets them down.
Whether it’s due to a lack of education, outright persecution, or anything in between, terrorism in Trek is always a reaction to something. Even when the show directly brings into question groups’ ethical reasoning, terrorists are never painted as purely evil people who were always destined to do wrong. Even when terrorists’ actions are particularly abhorrent, the failures of their governments are also highlighted. In the case of the Maquis, terrorism can be traced back to an ill-thought-out border agreement, and the mishandling of settlers. In the case of the Logic Extremists, we are made to re-examine the underlying sense of racial superiority that lays within Vulcan culture. Whatever the root cause, there is something beyond the individual terrorist.
According to Star Trek, it is not enough to simply defend ourselves from terrorists when they appear. This approach, it seems, only delays the inevitable. Instead, Trek argues, we should try and fix those social conditions that helped create terrorists in the first place – before they turn to violence.
Note: For those interested in this topic, the Trekspertise YouTube channel has a much longer two-parter on terrorism in Star Trek which looks more at the relation of the franchise to real world events. You can find it here.