Claims of “genocide” abound in policy discourse. So do misunderstandings about the concept.

Some recent examples. In the last two years, Russia claimed that Georgia’s attack on Tshkinvali was “genocide;” US House of Representatives accused Iran of inciting genocide in response to Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory comments about wiping Israel (as it is currently politically constituted) off the map; and Gideon Polya apparently discovered a correlation between countries experiencing “war, genocide and occupation” and the failure of those countries to win Olympic medals.

These examples demonstrate both the political salience of the “genocide” label as a catch-all term for “evil-doing,” and the general lack of understanding of a relatively narrow term which connotes a set of actions aimed to destroy national, political, religious or ethnic groups, not to describe all the other horrors against individual human beings of which Mankind is capable, and certainly not all forms of deadly political violence. At the heart of this misunderstanding is a confusion about the distinction between group rights and individual rights.

Popular culture often doesn’t help. So I argue in my new essay “The Enemy We Seek to Destroy,” just published in Adam Jones’ collection Evoking Genocide. The article analyzes narratives about “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” in the science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and focuses particularly on the Federation’s understanding of ethical conduct vis a vis a truly genocidal enemy, the “Borg.”

Excerpts from my essay are below the fold.

Star Trek, a cultural phenomenon that encompasses the original TV series, five spin-off series, ten feature films, and numerous books, comics, games, magazines, and fan websites, has long been understood by cultural theorists as a political commentary on contemporary world affairs. Those of us who have followed it closely see it above all as a morality play. Episodes routinely discuss timeless issues of what it means to be a person; whether good can triumph over evil; the relationship between emotion and reason; the meaning of free will; and the nature of justice.

As a young person, and later as a budding human rights theorist, I perceived in Star Trek a commitment to liberal individualism and a respect for cultural self-determination. In that sense, the “United Federation of Planets” – the cosmopolitan organization that dispatches the Starship Enterprise to its distant realms – opposes violations of both individual and group rights. Growing up, the show was a constant touchstone for my emerging ethical and political consciousness. In several episodes, the Enterprise encounters planets where genocidal practices are in place. Each case is treated as the outer limit of the non-interference doctrine (the Prime Directive), which might be read as an early articulation of the norm of humanitarian intervention.

Against this background of appreciation for the show’s moral universe, I later found myself, somewhat to my surprise, disillusioned by a particular episode, one in which the Federation itself contemplated genocide against an alien collectivist culture. The Borg are a cybernetic race who evolve through assimilating organic species, and their technological distinctiveness, into their own cyber-collective – linking individual “drones” to a single collective consciousness. In the fifth season episode, I, Borg, the Enterprise encounters the crash site of a Borg scout ship, along with a lone Borg survivor. At the insistence of the doctor, Beverly Crusher, the drone is taken aboard for medical treatment – although the inclination of the other officers is to shoot the drone, since “the collective will come looking for it.” (In fact, the Borg have engaged the Federation previously, with the goal of assimilating Earth’s entire civilization into their collective. Picard was once abducted by the Borg, which possibly explains his no-holds-barred attitude.)

When the drone recovers consciousness, Captain Picard hatches a plan to introduce an “invasive programming sequence” into the drone’s subroutine. When the drone interfaces with the Borg collective, Picard hopes that the computer virus will “infect the entire collective” and “disable their neural network,” in effect shutting down their brain, and eliminating them as a threat to the Federation. Over the course of the episode, however, the crew is forced to reconsider this plan, as the Borg drone, now severed from the collective, begins to function as an individual, evoking the sympathy of the crew and respect for his rights.

What immediately struck me about this sequence is that, while the characters eventually come to view harming the individual Borg as wrong, the idea of genocide (as a crime against a collective) is never fully critiqued. Most of the officers accept with very little discussion that eradicating the Borg collective as such is an appropriate course of action. Crusher is alone in questioning the policy of genocide. Other officers concur with Picard: “We’re at war”; “They’ve attacked us at every encounter.” But even Crusher appears implicitly to accept the crew’s argument that exterminating the Borg as a collective could be justifiable on grounds of self-defense. Her disagreement focuses on whether exterminating individual Borg non-combatants is ethical. She does not concur with Picard’s argument that individual drones lack rights. Were collective rights her reference point, Picard’s argument about the Borg collective consciousness would not have been “convenient,” but would rather underscore the atrociousness of targeting that civilization-defining consciousness.

Subsequent to this scene, the morality of destroying the Borg collective as such is evaded. The ethical debate in the episode (for in Star Trek, there always is one) centers only on whether the “invasive program” would violate the rights of Borg drones as individuals. Dr. Crusher does argue on behalf of the Borg prisoner: “When I look at my patient, I don’t see a collective consciousness. I see a living, breathing boy who has been hurt and needs our help.” But this is reminiscent of protections for wounded prisoners enshrined in humanitarian law. She also continues to question the ethics of “using” an unsuspecting individual to destroy his people, though increasingly the targeting of “the people” itself is lost in the discussion.

Crusher’s claims are validated as the episode progresses. The drone, now separated from the collective, begins to exhibit individual traits, and becomes increasingly identifiable as a person. Thus, while early on Picard had used classic genocidal rhetoric in encouraging his crew not to become too attached to “it,” he eventually comes to view the prisoner as an individual worthy of respect, protection, dignity, and choice. In many respects, the episode is a study in the power of dehumanization to enable atrocity, and of rehumanization to restrain it. But rather than transforming Picard’s understanding of the Borg collective, this newfound sensibility simply provides him with a different set of concerns to weigh against the supposed moral viability of genocide. The goal of eradicating the collective continues to hold sway throughout the episode, but it becomes difficult to justify forcing the individual drone to return to the collective like, as Crusher puts it, “some sort of walking bomb.”

In fact, it seems that the ability to view the drone as worthy of rights at all is contingent on viewing him as distinct from the Borg, rather than as an individual of a sentient race that ought not to be exterminated on principle. This is perhaps best exemplified by Picard’s statement, when he finally concludes that it would be wrong to bring the plan to fruition: “To use him in this manner would be no better than the enemy we seek to destroy.” Destroying the enemy “as such” is not questioned – only the use of a sentient individual as a tool for this purpose. This is thoroughly inconsistent with the rules of war in liberal international society, as well as the rules of engagement in the Star Trek universe. There, one does not seek to destroy one’s enemies, but merely to defeat their military forces, and perhaps transform them into allies.

To my mind, the Borg episodes in general, and this one in particular, engage a range of ethical questions relating to the concept of genocide (or xenocide?). First, are genocidal strategies appropriate against an enemy bent on committing genocide themselves? That is, is genocide justifiable if committed in self-defense? If so, what is the burden of proof for demonstrating that defense against genocide is impossible with less draconian methods?

Second, if an entire society is mobilized (as the Borg arguably are), does treating that society as a military objective constitute genocide, or would it be consistent with the laws of war that permit targeting military objectives? (That is, is it only genocide if the targets are non-combatants, or is the reference point the existence of the collective entity itself?) Are the laws of war obsolete when defeating an entire military would, essentially, require the destruction of an entire society? Is destruction of a civilization as such acceptable, even appropriate, if the destruction takes place through non-lethal means and is carried out so as to liberate “oppressed” individuals from a cultural context inimical to their own individual freedoms? And how should a military officer respond, when given a command that could be deemed profoundly unethical?

“I, Borg,” and Star Trek more generally, offers an opportunity to meditate on these issues. Indeed, as a multimedia phenomenon, it promises (and often delivers) a careful, nuanced grappling with some of the important political problems of our day. In this instance, however, I think the show missed an opportunity to educate viewers about the nature of genocide both as concept and as crime: as something distinct from war, and from questions of individual human rights. Apparently, even the most liberal ethical narrative can accommodate genocidal thinking within certain parameters. This should give us pause.

Share