In TNG’s “The First Duty,” Captain Picard makes an impassioned speech to a struggling Wesley Crusher, emphasizing the fundamental importance of truth. After a teammate’s accidental death, Wesley and the three other surviving Nova Squadron pilots conceal the squad’s attempt of a banned, high-risk maneuver. Uncovering this, Captain Picard offers Wesley a final chance to behave as befits a Starfleet officer and confess. When the cadets of Nova Squadron admit to their negligence and attempted perjury, their punishment is meted out by Admiral Brand, Academy Superintendent. Squadron leader Nick Locarno is expelled, while fellow humans Wesley and Jean Hajar and Bajoran Sito Jaxa receive a formal reprimand and the cancellation of their credits for their current academic year. Unmentioned in the central dilemma, however, is the unique position of Cadet Sito. In a season introducing a species and situation made central in then-incipient DS9, Captain Picard fails to consider all he knows of Bajoran oppression in his moral analysis.
It is myopic and dogmatic of the inquiry panel to condemn Jaxa as harshly as the rest of Nova Squadron. Nick, Jean, Wesley, and the deceased Cadet, Joshua Albert, grew up in the bounty, security, peace, and perpetual affirmation of the Federation: at least two have parents who are senior Starfleet officers. Jaxa is from Bajor, where the Cardassian occupation is at its most oppressive. The withdrawal that is the premise for DS9 will not occur until the next season of TNG. Jaxa’s homeworld is under the heel of a brutal colonial power. Millions of Bajorans are displaced or forced into labor camps, and the diaspora fleeing the Occupation lives in abject poverty on scattered worlds. The Bajoran culture, religion, and way of life are under siege.
Somehow despite this, Jaxa managed to get the education necessary to qualify for Starfleet Academy (no easy feat, as Wesley discovers in TNG’s “Coming of Age”). She managed to win the endorsement of a command-level Starfleet officer (a requirement for non-Federation applicants as we learn in DS9’s “Heart of Stone”). She clawed out of a precarious childhood, and now the accident threatens her hard-won position. She has none of the protections of Federation citizenship; no peaceful haven to return to. She has nothing but what she’s managed to win for herself: her place at Starfleet Academy.
When she fears that Nova Squadron must “turn in [their] uniforms and start packing [their] bags,”Jaxa cannot envision returning to an idyllic Federation home like Jean and Nick, or rejoining her mother on the flagship of the fleet as Wesley can — disgraced and ashamed, but fundamentally safe. From the young Bajoran’s perspective, leaving the Academy means a return to starvation, dissipation, and brutality. It means the threat of death, or of being rounded up and forced into slavery, either in the labour camps or as a “comfort woman” for the Cardassian soldiers (DS9’s “Wrongs Darker than Death or Night”). The prospect is horrific.
With this possibility looming, could Jaxa really be expected to champion the truth alone when the other cadets started closing ranks? Is it even fair to think she could, or that she’s equally culpable in this situation? The penalty levied against the members of Nova Squadron is a serious one, very much commensurate with the seriousness of their transgression. But is it just for Sito Jaxa to bear the same consequences, when she acted under far greater duress than any of her teammates? Her discomfort with the cover-up is clear in her body language and in Nick’s nervousness when she offers the smallest fib in the inquest. Her personal anguish shows her depth of character, as much Wesley’s more centrally placed dilemma reveals his.
To object to the cover-up, or the vainglorious maneuver earlier, would have meant standing up to her team captain. That alone would have been disproportionately difficult for Jaxa. This episode confirms Jaxa does follow traditional Bajoran naming customs (TNG’s “Ensign Ro”), as she’s correctly addressed by Brand as Cadet Sito. Despite this, Nick uses her family name instead of her personal one, in the same scene he addresses the others as “Jean” and “Wes .” His willful ignorance or apathy to culture is clearly an ongoing group dynamic, which could not have encouraged Jaxa to feel respected and seen as an equal.
The Federation prides itself on inclusivity and equity, but those principles fail at the inquest’s conclusion. This was an opportunity for restorative justice, a system that seeks not only to respect and offer healing to victims of wrongdoing, but to take into consideration the struggles and needs of those who have caused harm. Such justice should take into account Jaxa’s history of suffering, the desolation of her culture, and the relative position of privilege enjoyed by the rest of Nova Squadron from birth. She should have been offered counselling and support, not stripped of her academic credits. She deserved better from a society that is supposed to have evolved beyond the limitations of a self-centred viewpoint.
Admiral Brand’s limited perspective is unfortunately all too realistic and believable for a character insulated by the Federation from harsher realities. As Benjamin Sisko later says of Starfleet Command, “It’s easy to be a saint in Paradise!” (DS9’s “Maquis Pt. 2”). However, we can and should expect better of Jean-Luc Picard. He has walked in the Bajoran refugee camps and spoken to the scarred survivors of the Occupation (TNG’s, “Ensign Ro”). He should know what Jaxa has overcome. He should know what she fears. He should have advocated for her, instead of condemning her. Not just when he requested she be posted to the Enterprise after graduation (TNG’s “Lower Decks”): right from the very beginning.
When even the wisdom of Captain Picard falls short of weighing the mitigating factors behind her complicity in Nova Squadron’s misdeeds, how can Sito Jaxa hope for true justice? In the context of the tragic occupation of her homeworld, her punishment is certainly “equal” to that of Wesley Crusher and Jean Hajar, but that is neither equitable nor just. The missed opportunity for Picard to awaken the compassion of the panelists with the same flame of inspiration he bends to Wesley’s grappling conscience leaves “The First Duty” lacking a fully-rounded conclusion.