Deep Space Nine: s07 e16 – Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges

Two sides of a coin

So we arrive at the end of the standalones. From here on in, it’s head on to the grand conclusion, a nine part finale, all irrelevances thrust aside as DS9 goes for it. And a fine, if ultimately flawed, episode to lead into it.

‘Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges’ translates, and is translated for us by Doctor Julian Bashir at the end, as ‘in time of war, the law is silent’. It’s about compromise, about manipulation, about ignoring the ideals of a fine civilisation in order to secure the continuing existence of such civilisation. In short, at the last moment possible, it’s about the reappearance of Section 31, under the man named Sloan, and the recruitment of Bashir as an operative who, intent on exposing Section 31, finds himself out-manouevered at every turn.

The basic story is that Bashir, together with Senator Cretak, the Romulan DS9 liaison (here played by former scream-queen Adrienne Barbeau), are attending a medical conference on Romulus itself. Sloan recruits Bashir to study Koval, head of the Tal Shiar and one of two candidates with Cretak for the vacant post on the Continuing Committee, to determine if he has the rumoured Tuvan syndrome. Sloan himself attends the Conference.

Bashir develops the belief that Sloan actually intends to assassinate the anti-Federation Koval, and enable the Federation-sympathetic Cretak to take the Committee chair. Anxious to try to stop this, Bashir confides in Cretak after Admiral Ross, his only ally, suffers an aneurysm.

The outcome is that Bashir is arrested by Koval and interrogated (unsuccessfully, thanks to his genetic modification) and then brought as a witness to Senator Cretak’s trial for treason, attempting – at Bashir’s request – to access Koval’s personal databank. To everyone’s surprise, a tortured Sloan is also produced, and denounced by Koval as an ordinary Starfleet Intelligence Officer who has created ‘Section 31’ out of whole cloth as a screen for his intense personal loyalty to an Admiral assassinated by the Romulans and a self-imposed mission to assassinate a senior Romulan for vengeance.

Cretak is convicted, Bashir sent back as an innocent dupe, and Sloan, attempting to escape, is disintegrated.

On the way back, Bashir works it all out and confronts Ross, off the record, over the fact that Sloan is still alive, beamed out a fraction of a second before the disruptor struck, and that the whole plan was really an elaborate scheme to protect the Federation’s undercover ally, Koval, whose anti-Federation stance will make his decision to back the Alliance all the more powerful. Cretak, a patriot who would turn against the Federation if it served her people, is sacrificed partly because of that risk, but largely as the innocent sacrifice crushed as collateral damage.

Bashir gets to let off a rant about the immorality of the whole scheme, which prompts Ross to quote the title for our good Doctor to translate with fine scorn and serious irony, which is one of the episode’s two main flaws, because it lets Bashir off his own culpability. If Cretak is executed, as she likely will be, her blood spatters Baashir’s hands as well, but his speech distances himself from moral culpability when it really shouldn’t. Many people, Ira Stephen Behr included, have criticised the episode for failing to take that final step and instead exonerating Bashir, and I agree whilst also repeating my quasi-mantra – Nineties Network TV Prime-Time Drama series.

The other flaw is Sloan himself, who can do anything: get in and out of highly secure places, vanish without a trace, corrupt Starfleet Admirals, the whole nine yards without the scriptwriters ever explaining how he does this. Magic? No, lazy writing. Sloan is Superman, so there’s no need to explain how he does it.

And the two strands come together in the close when Sloan, still alive of course, turns up in Bashir’s quarters, to salute him as a man of consequence who the ruthless, completely amoral Sloan, salutes and admires.

For all that, it’s a taut episode, cleverly constructed and, until its cop-out, confronting the audience with the moral ambiguities inherent in espionage of any kind. The principled Bashir, who can be a bit otherworldly in his extremes of honour, has always been the best contrast to the classically pragmatic Section 31, the dirty tricks boys. Early on, Bashir responds to Sloan’s concerns about where the Romulan political balance might lie once the Dominion War is over by sneering that they haven’t finished fighting this war and he’s already planning the next, and I’m thinking that if you’ve got a temporary ally who, after this war is done, will be the only power bloc capable of fighting you, it’s plain sense to know what they’re likely to do.

And this ties into Rosss’s self-justifying outburst, at the end, when challenged over his abandonment of the principles of the Federation, that every day he signs orders sending young men and women out to be killed, and that if sanctioning Section 31’s operations means less of that, he will choose what seems to him to be the lesser of two evils. Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges.

In fiction, where the lines are usually more clearly drawn than in real life, it’s easy to side with Sloan and Ross. The latter’s argument reminded me instantly of a moment the late George MacDonald Fraser once related, arguing with an anti-nuclear campaigner who was denouncing the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. Fraser was in the British Army in Burma (his book about that time, Quartered Safe Out Here, is brilliant) and, if the War against Japan hadn’t been so abruptly ended, would have been part of the forces that would have fought their way towards the Home Islands. The bomb saved the lives of thousands and thousands of serving men, Fraser and his platoon potentially among them. It’s dropping was terrible, but the lives it took would have been replicated by the lives to be last if it had not been used. Which set of deaths do you choose to accept? Fraser’s choice is Ross’s choice, and I can’t find it in myself to criticise the Admiral’s decision.

One aspect of the episode I did like was when Bashir recruited Cretak to his side. Without the show giving away any hints, I suddenly realised that Bashir was doing exactly what was wanted by Sloan, that he had been manipulated into a set-up whereby his own fierce determination to thwart Sloan’s ‘assassination’ would end up accomplishing it. I didn’t foresee the twist about Koval, but I admired how deftly the show set up that realisation without telegraphing it in any way.

So. The endgame is upon us. All roads lead to the east and the coming of war. Three years of watching this series lie behind me. In more ways than one, I’m ready for the End.

6 thoughts on “Deep Space Nine: s07 e16 – Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges

  1. I liked how this episode dealt with the future consquences of the war, while The Siege of AR-558 and It’s Only A Paper Moon dealt with the present and past of ongoing war. One of the series’ best. Sloan and Ross’s actions were no different than the Allies plans and speculations about the post- World War II landscape though with some great fictional intrigue elements.

    My initial recation to Section 31, was one of dislike. It felt like they were trying to hard to be hip in the X-Files sense of the 1990s. “The truth is out there,” it’s all a big government conspiracy. For me it wasn’t about going against the Trekkian ethos as it felt too influenced by the era. Or maybe it just wasn’t my style.
    But it’s one of those ideas as time wore on, it grew on me and totally made sense. And totally fit the shades of grey themes that DS9 used compared to the constant bright and sunny always right Federation that TNG espoused.
    And like you, I tended to find myself rooting against Bashir and for Section 31. I don’t know whether it’s really good writing or bad writing.

  2. If I recall correctly, Ira Stephen Behr thought they’d dropped the ball with Bashir’s self-exculpatory indignation, trying to give himself a moral free pass. Section 31 may not be the most moral of operations but it’s beyond naive to insist on doing without one. If you’re not prepared to prepare for future conflict, you are condemning men and women to die for your negligence.

  3. I’ve never been a fan of John Le Carre, or Cold War literature/cinema in general (I did enjoy the Steven Spielberg movie ‘Bridge of Spies’). It doesn’t interest me. I think “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” is a terrific episode of DS9 despite that. It really deepens the world of the show in believable ways. Mainly–what happens after this earth-shattering war? Section 31 is planning for the Yalta Conference. They know the Romulans are the only other major power to come out, if not ahead, then not irreparably damaged. The Cardassians will be shattered, much as Bajor was at the start of the series. The Klingons need some major restructuring. So that leaves the Romulans. The schemers, supposedly–the ones who can’t be trusted. Well, turns out that the Federation are better at it. They beat the Romulans at their own game by pulling a massive wool over the eyes of the Romulan senate. This is a fascinating turn of events for people who’ve watched a lot of Trek (like me, for instance). The Federation is usually placed above that, so to suggest that the Federation are the true schemers of the galaxy is just really great subversive storytelling that rings true.

    And I think Behr was flat out wrong about the ending. DS9 doesn’t need to muddy Bashir the way it muddied Sisko in ‘In the Pale Moonlight’. Bashir is here to represent that idealism that clashes with Ross’ pragmatism. Ross is willing to get his hands dirty to do what he thinks is necessary to save the lives of Federation citizens. Bashir sticks to his principles rigidly…but is he really right? I think Ronald D. Moore sides with Section 31 here, in some ways.

    1. I needed ti re-read my review before I could comment: this was nearly two tearsago, you know!

      I’ve read very little le Carre but don’t like it, as much because I don’t like his style of writing or the way his characters talk. But like you I am not keen on deep down and dirty espionage, where no-one is right in any sense of the word.

      As for Bashir, I side with Behr. Whether you call Bashir principled or naive, he was part of the scheme and he doesn’t get to wash his hands of it like Pontius Pilate. If he had stuc to his pprinciplesrifidly, he would not have served Sloan’s purpose at all. Sloan and Section 31 re abhorrent, but the price of ridding yourself of them is death, and the death of others. Sit that down with your conscience and see which finishes off the cream first.

      1. Call me old-fashioned, but I like having heroes in my stories. Not perfect by any means, but good. At least people to root for.

        Yeah, maybe, but if I remember this episode correctly, he wasn’t really aware that it was a Section 31 scheme. It makes sense for his character to wake up and realize it, and then get angry about it and try to distance himself from it. He’s infiltrating Section 31 on Sisko’s orders, with the hope of ultimately destroying it–that was my understanding from ‘Inquisition’. I guess I see your point, which is that he shouldn’t have agreed to do any of this. The fact that he draws an arbitrary line in the sand on his morality doesn’t mean he can wash himself clean of agreeing to anything Section 31 ordered him to do. But I still think it makes sense for his character to be as self-righteous as he is.

        I’ll be commenting on some more DS9 episodes, mainly the ones I find most interesting.

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