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The High Ground

(Spoiler warning: This post contains major spoilers for a 20 year old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

I admire Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. As utopian fiction set far in the future, the franchise has held the ability to comment on social and political issues of the past and present without direct reference. Gene Roddenberry’s fictional future representatives of mankind address issues of disease, war, racism, and other conflicts as allegory to our present realities. What in Star Trek’s fictional future is no more than a kiss, in our reality is a controversial comment about race relations. The fictional events on a human-like planet of Rutia IV is an evolved look at the concept of terror as an act for political change.

“The High Ground” aired in 1990 and found the crew of the USS Enterprise on a mission of mercy to a small non-aligned world called Rutia IV. The independent planet is plagued by terrorists who claim to be freedom fighters, a small cultural group seeking autonomy from the larger collective government. They spread terror by bombing school buses, attacking military and civilian targets, and assassinating officials. In unique Star Trek fashion, their efforts are bolstered by unique technology, a new type of teleportation that while undetectable, also slowly kills the user.  

During the mission, a medical officer is abducted by a terrorist cell in order to provide medical treatment to the terrorist dying from use of their transport device. In this way, humanity’s representative is entangled in a type of conflict Earth only knows from its history. The narrative explores the various points of view: the peace officer who must bend civil liberties of a few to protect the many, the terrorist leader who murders but who has legitimate grievance, and the outsiders drawn in by a single act.

Like past episodes that addressed delicate persisting issues, “The Higher Ground” did not air without controversy. More precisely, in England the episode did not air at all, at least not initially. (An edited version was aired years after). The decision was most likely due to the in story discussion of fictional historical events in Ireland and Israel with regard to the outcome of terrorist acts. Comments like: "Yet there are numerous examples when it was successful: the independence of the Mexican State from Spain, the Irish Unification of 2024, and the Kenzie Rebellion."

Our saga ends as only Star Trek can with a nick of time discovery leading to a nick of time rescue in which the terrorist leader is killed seconds before he can execute his hostages. Still, there is an interesting moment and subsequent back and forth before resolution. As the terrorist leader lays dead, a young boy picks up a weapon. While he is subsequently talked down, the peace officer remarks, “Already another one to take his place. It never ends.”

The response is key. “He could've killed you,” says Commander Riker. “He didn't. Maybe the end begins with one boy putting down his gun.”

It’s an interesting depiction of the process of terror that reflects struggles in the real world with regard to separatists. Yet the most meaningful moment for me was the of that child at the end. Terror continues because it is taught; because it is preached and dictated to be an answer. Yet empirical evidence indicates that fear is not a lasting motivator for political change. Education reveals this as well as connects children to other cultures through commonalities.

Consider Operation Cyclone: after the US had provided billions dollars to the Afghan freedom fighters to defeat the Soviets, only a fraction of a percentage of those billions was spent on rebuilding damaged infrastructure like schools. The committee refuses to dedicate one million dollars toward education, effectively making it that much more difficult for those boys who need education to put down their guns.

three comments

I did love the point many of the original episodes made.
“Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” about the sillyness of racism for example.
“The Day of the Dove”, on war.

Another point: the title refers to a moral certitude that both opposing factions thought was theirs alone. Each believed themselves just and their counterparts unjust.

You should review the episode that came before this. It’s about Rambo. (Seriously)