Section 31 and the Normalization of the Security State

"A Critical Division of Starfleet Intelligence"

There's no precedent for it in the franchise; nothing that its backstory is needed to unpack or explain. Indeed, it makes the whole thing more inexplicable: societies with unchecked, unaccountable black ops and secret police forces do not, typically, resemble paradises even on a surface level -- something that DS9 itself readily understood when it came to worldbuilding for the Cardassians. [...]

But one can, perhaps, forgive DS9 this particular indulgence; it came in the midst of a larger arc about what happens when you throw Gene Roddenberry's humanist utopia into a major war, and it can be read in the context of that story: To what extent is the Federation willing to sacrifice its morals to ensure its own survival? [...]

Which brings us, inexorably, to Picard season three. Here, Section 31 -- although mostly offscreen -- is as evil as it's ever been depicted [...] There's one glorious moment where Picard actually looks sick upon hearing the extent of Section 31's crimes; but then -- arguably in the face of thirty-five years of consistent characterization -- he and Dr. Crusher opt to compound them by executing a prisoner of war. This is never mentioned again. Just another day at the office, I suppose. [...]

There is, of course, a darker side to this merry jaunt through the last quarter century of Star Trek canon; namely, that it directly parallels the real-life growth of the national security state (that alphabet soup of government organizations charged with "ensuring public safety"), particularly in the decades following 9/11.

Looking at some of these bodies, it is remarkable how recently they were established: Homeland Security, ICE and TSA all date to after the turn of millennium. Like our fictional Section 31, these organizations are regularly accused of lawlessness, indifference to civil rights, and horrifying human rights abuses; like Section 31, they have become part of the wallpaper of daily existence: normal; natural; a part of the setting, as it were. Indeed, even in imaginary, far-future utopias where people can travel at thousands of times the speed of light and synthesize any material good out of raw atoms, the idea of living without such organizations is now apparently too radical to seriously entertain -- even when they are canonically heinous, ridiculously incompetent, and prone to making life worse for everyone.

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