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How did “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” explore the duality of terrorism?

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993) is set primarily on a space station—a move that distinguished the show substantially from its two starship-based predecessors. Brandon Tartikoff, the former Paramount president who suggested the series’ creation to Trek producer Rick Berman, envisioned that if The Next Generation (1987) was Wagon Train (1957) in space (as it was regularly cited), then Deep Space Nine would be The Rifleman (1958) in space, telling the story of “a man and his son coming to a dilapidated town on the edge of a new frontier.”

That man is Federation Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) and his son Jake (Cirroc Lofton). Sent to the newly-renamed Deep Space Nine (formerly Terok Nor), Sisko is to manage Federation presence on the station. Starfleet’s presence was requested by the Bajoran Government as mediation between the Cardassians, who formerly controlled the base, and the Bajorans, the inhabitants of the nearby planet who spent generations enslaved and controlled by Cardassians prior to an uprising and subsequent war that granted their freedom. Major Kira (Nana Visitor), a Bajoran “terrorist” leader in the uprising, serves as Sisko’s second in command on the base.

The Bajorans see the Cardassians as slavers; they forced Bajorans to work in labor camps and live in constant fear of execution. The Cardassians view the Bajorans who led the uprising as terrorists, as the hostilities used unexpected and calculated attacks on Cardassians. Audience sympathy is targeted towards the Bajorans as the greater victims in the background story.

This history sets the backdrop for what would become a darker, more complicated show than either of the Star Treks before it and immediately opens up an ongoing examination of the nature of terrorism. The show paralleled a time in American history when domestic terrorism was on the rise, with the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and regular Army of God bombings among the leading news stories.

The third episode of Deep Space Nine, titled “Past Prologue,” deals directly with interpretations of terrorism. Sisko rescues Tahna, a friend of Kira’s from the uprising, whom the Cardassians are demanding be turned over to them for punishment citing his membership in an ongoing Bajoran terrorist organization. After a plea by Kira, the fellow is instead given asylum on DS9. Following that sanction, it’s revealed he had intentions of blowing up the nearby wormhole that is the source of both Federation and Cardassian interest in the area.

The episode stems from audience sympathy for Bajorans to comment on the ambiguous nature of terrorism. Is Tahna a freedom fighter or a terrorist? Did Kira make the right decision by helping him?

As WhatCulture examines, “In these early episodes, Star Trek portrays terrorism as a dilemma that largely affects other species, and showed the Federation as attempting to remain above the fray in ways that mirrored the American public’s mindset during the early 1990s. More often than not Americans believed that terrorism involved other nations mostly located in Europe and the Middle East. Like Starfleet, Americans found it nearly impossible to appear as a disinterested or neutral party.”

The depiction of the terrorist dilemma evolved over the series. As WhatCulture continues, “Late in its second season, the two-part DS9 episode, ‘The Maquis,’ marked a shift in Star Trek’s depiction of terrorism: instead of showing the Federation and Starfleet as innocent bystanders, now they were increasingly portrayed as the targets of a home-grown terrorist group called the Maquis. The Maquis are Federation-born colonists who fight the Cardassian occupation of their homes in the Demilitarized Zone after their colonies were ceded by the Federation to the Cardassian Union. Starfleet Command considers the Maquis to be traitors, while Cardassian officials proclaim them terrorists… When Gul Evek, the Cardassian attaché for the Demilitarized Zone accuses Federation colonists of ‘organized terrorist activities,’ Sisko replies that ‘the Federation does not conduct secret wars.’ Evek produces a confession from a Federation citizen who admits responsibility for bombing the [Cardassian freighter] Bok’Nor. Sisko’s friend, Lieutenant Commander Hudson quickly proclaims the Federation colonists’ right to defend themselves against Cardassian oppression and tells Sisko he is leaving Starfleet to work with the rebels. To end this conflict, Sisko joins with his Cardassian nemesis, Gul Dukat, to stop both the Cardassian smuggling and the Maquis attacks. The two-part episode culminates when Sisko prevents a Maquis attack on a Cardassian weapons depot, but in doing so he lets Hudson escape.”

This storyline enabled DS9 to really dig into the complexity of terrorism and the role of third-party supporters.

The Maquis-Federation-Cardassian struggle initiated by this episode continued throughout Deep Space Nine’s seven-season run. While the stories generally paint the Cardassians as the bad guys relative to the Maquis, it is always a looming truth that the Federation considered the Maquis to be terrorists. The program’s intent was to examine the various interpretations of terrorism. In any conflict involving terrorism, the labels are different on each side, as both groups generally believe they’re doing the right thing for their people. The way the DS9 manipulates the events it depicts and the characters involved requires viewers to question their automatic sympathies.

What is innovative above all in DS9’s handling of the issue is that it’s not limited to the representation of terrorism as an outside “negative” force working against “good guys.” It is a balance; the writers don’t shy away from the idea of domestic terrorism and Federation individuals outwardly becoming terrorists against their own kind. With all of these components and complexities at play, the ambiguity of terrorism is never forgotten.

The theme of terrorism went on to become a constant figure in the two Star Trek series that followed. Star Trek: Voyager (1995 - 2001) took over the Maquis storyline, and when Star Trek: Enterprise (2001 - 2005) launched 15 days after the September 11 attacks it inevitably became entrenched with terrorism-centered stories. But Deep Space Nine paved the way for this tradition of mirroring society through a deep and honest examination of the multiple sides of terrorism.