Section 31 is an autonomous officially non-existent organisation comprised of Federation citizens operating outside of Starfleet to protect the United Federation of Planets against threats by any means necessary. The name Section 31 comes from Starfleet Charter Article 14 Section 31 which allows for a bending of the rules when under extreme threat. Section 31 does not follow the Prime Directive or Starfleet codes of behaviour and goes against the principles of the Federation. Yet, the Federation seems to “look the other way”, as Odo states, when the actions of Section 31 achieve what they want to accomplish.
The operatives of Section 31 claim that the ends justify the means. They were profoundly involved during the Dominion War which threatened the entire Alpha Quadrant, not just Federation citizens. But were their methods a step to far or merely a way of ensuring the safety of the Earth in a desperate situation? At the time, the Federation was losing the war, casualty reports were constantly coming in, and the safety of its citizens was severely compromised, this was the biggest threat since the Borg. Does this justify the extreme actions that Section 31 took? As Sisko said in reference to the Marquis (and I think it can be applied here too) “It’s easy to be a saint in paradise”.
In the utopian Federation, is Section 31 a necessary evil? Or is it a dangerous, uncontrolled organisation lead by a few rogue Federation citizens? We have to remember that the Federation has not only survived but gone from strength to strength. This is without the knowledge of the existence of Section 31 which, according to Luther Sloan, a Section 31 agent, has existed for hundreds of years. And how much of the growth and prosperity of the Federation do we owe to Section 31? “We deal with threats to the Federation that jeopardise its very survival. If you knew how many lives we’ve saved, I think you’d agree that the ends do justify the means.” – Sloan.
Sloan attempts to recruit Dr Bashir into Section 31, and Bashir resolutely turns him down on a number of occasions. In the DS9 episode ‘Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges’ Sloan says “The Federation needs men like you… and you’re also the reason that Section 31 exists; to protect men like you from a universe which doesn’t share your sense of right or wrong”. Though Sloan’s viewpoint is somewhat understandable, it’s never wise for one nation to believe that it is always in the right, and other nations’ practices are wrong – this is a very absolute perspective and to impose ones beliefs on others can be arrogant and misguided.
I think Section 31’s most extreme action was to engineer a virus to infect the Founders using Odo as their secret delivery method. This is genocide on an unimaginable scale; the aim was to infect and destroy an entire race – the Founders were the instigators of the war, and without them the Dominion would collapse. Also, when Bashir discovered the cure from Sloan and healed Odo, the Federation determined that it would not share this with the Founders, Odo said “they’re abetting genocide”.
Can this be likened to when Captain Jean Luc Picard wanted to implant a programme into the Borg Hugh in order to eradicate the Borg? This action was not taken in the end, and the Borg continued to destroy countless millions. So was this the correct decision, given that the Borg has no morals and destroy worlds indiscriminately? I believe that, though the Founders were certainly a formidable and ruthless enemy, it would have been ethically wrong to destroy an entire race. Wouldn’t that just be proving to the Founders that the solids aren’t to be trusted? And were there no redeeming features, no hope at all for the Founders to become better people? Odo proved that a Founder can be a friend of the solids, a moral being and rather ‘human’ in his emotions and attitude towards love and friendship. In the end, Odo wanted to pass on his knowledge and understanding into the great link.
If they hadn’t taken such actions, would the outcome of the Dominion war have been different? Key turning points were when the Romulans joined the war, not instigated by Section 31, but by Sisko, and when the Cardassians turned against the Dominion and joined the Federation against them. Neither of the acts was a result of Section 31 methods or interventions.
There is a danger in being accountable to no one. The Section 31 agents have an immense power which can be corrupted. As they serve as ‘judge, jury and executioner’ – how can anyone guarantee an individual makes the correct and rational decision 100% of the time? There needs to be some kind of safety net. Yet can the two; Federation and Section 31- really co-exist?
Section 31 provided another dimension to Star Trek, as it offered realism in the utopian view of the future, as well as raising questions of morality. It certainly isn’t clear cut; I’m not sure if there is a right answer to the whether the existence of section 31 can be justified. In an ideal world, such an organisation would never exist; their methods are extreme, often immoral and lack honour. But who knows what Section 31 have managed to protect the Federation against. In some cases, the end may very well justify the means. It’s interesting to introduce this conflict to the ideals of the Federation, and demonstrates well how Star Trek introduces concepts and perspectives that add shades of grey into the idealistic Federation world.