Thursday, February 11, 2016

Forgivness is Loss

I'm going to do THAT Star Trek fan thing. I'm going to discuss an immensely serious issue, and couch it in the context of an episode of Deep Space Nine. It still may be worth reading anyway.

Doing this, I do not mean to trivialize human tragedy - and certainly not to praise Trek because/fangirl - but to point to one of the billion ways our culture - even pop culture - faces off with the nastiest elements of human nature ...

... and to recognize that sometimes, what we have to say with entertainment actually has something worthwhile to say about the history of human behavior.

Inevitable Trek Context (caveat/disclaimers for non-Trek-ites)

When DS9 came out, it was not universally adored. For one, it took place on a fixed space station instead of as space *ship*, which could go from place to place to place, and allowed for Alien of the Week eps, and may or may not have allowed character arcs to exist at all. For two, it took a dispiriting view of humanity-by-way-of-humans-and-aliens some found objectionable, in light of Gene Roddenberry's vision of a future mankind divested of money, illness (to a major degree), bigotry, and, frequently, many of its clothes. DS9 flew in the face of the enlightened evolution of TOS and TNG.

But that vision of human development had become at times insufferably smug, and shut down certain ways of telling stories that deal with the fundamental issues at the heart of Trek, and science fiction more generally.

DS9 debuted a story of a world fresh off fifty years' brutal occupation, and developed into the chronicle of a bitter war which actually affected its core ensemble (and many of its more peripheral characters) in genuinely terrible ways. It presented disharmonies - and even shone a light onto prejudices of previous Trek outings, taking on the presentation of the Ferengi, for instance - which had for years been seen as a rightly offensive caricature of anti-semitic stereotypes. DS9 dealt with religion in a way and with a depth and continuity that none of the previous series could, always in motion and never around any one culture long enough to really look at it sincerely.

DS9 was "dark."


It is with no disrespect nor trivialization that I turn to the news which prompted this post: that changes in German law initiated in 2011, after a retired Ohio auto worker was brought to trial for his role as a Nazi guard at the Sobibor concentration camp, have led to the opening of prosecution against other surviving persons who worked in the camps. Reinhold Hanning, at age ninety-four, is about to face trial for his own role as an SS guard at Auschwitz-Birkenau.


How Can This Have Anything to Do With Trek?

The connection is stark and direct, actually.

In "Duet", episode nineteen of season of Deep Space Nine, we are brought face to face with The Butcher of Gallitep, an occupying officer in charge of what essentially was a concentration camp run by occupying Cardassians on Bajor, something of a host planet to the space station, and home planet of core ensemble character, Major Kira, liaison officer to the Federation presence on the station.

An anonymous Cardassian traveler stopping at DS9 is detained almost by happenstance, because he is found to have a rare disease common only to those exposed to conditions at the camp at Gallitep. Clearly not a Bajoran victim of the place, we learn soon enough that this man turns out to have been none other than the Cardassian overseeing officer of the facility, The Butcher of Gallitep himself.

Kira, a resistance fighter who has risen from the ashes of her oppressed planet's release from occupation, is a passionate, partisan survivor. She instantly wants to punish The Butcher, and wins the privilege of taking on the investigation into this man, with an eye toward his prosecution.

It is Kira's own investigation that turns up the tragic, horrific truth: the man in custody is not The Butcher ... but was a file clerk at Gallitep, who has disguised himself as The Butcher. He is tormented with guilt because of the actions of his people, and his own banal, administrative role in the rape of Kira's world, that he has come to the station in order to bring about his own execution ... and perhaps, in the guise of The Butcher, to provide the Bajorans with a marquee defendant ...

The scenes the file clerk plays as The Butcher are genuinely harrowing TV - brutal, unrepentant, self-righteous. The scenes once his true identity are discovered are bruisingly sensitive, fraught, and intelligent. The show and the episode are as static and set-bound as the Trek of popular imagination, but this script is a stunner - made in a time where we had not yet applied cinematic production values, budgets, and expectations to serial science fiction - or any television at all - the show makes the most of its drama without these things.

Philosophically, "Duet" honors the questions it raises not by answering them, but by respecting them as perhaps ultimately unanswerable: no outcome can satisfy all witnesses. And any judicial proceeding is as much about its witnesses as it is about its plaintiffs or defendants, and rulings.

In the end, the episode is about loss - and yet, *what* is lost? For Kira, some prejudices. Some rigidity. And her convictions.

Is there virtue, in paring down a survivor's sustaining beliefs?

Kira has to deal, throughout the whole of this series, with the sickening giddiness that comes not after the world is torn from beneath her feet, but after the person that makes her is constantly and continually deconstructed, through the years following her redemption from Cardiassian overlordship. She has gained a certain freedom, but lost so much of the core of what has sustained her. She is forced, over and over, and no matter how much she grows, to lose still more - in order to grow still more. It is both the most sublime outcome for someone who would never submit to victimhood, and yet a continuing punishment to her, at the ghost hands of Cardassians long gone - and constantly reappearing, to reopen old wounds.

It is against this dynamic the firmness of her faith, of the religion of the Bajoran people (explicitly corrupt, and yet meaningful to its adherents) is represented.


It is beyond me utterly to grapple even with the questions raised in "Duet" - and beyond comprehension for me to contemplate "answers" to the question of what contemporary Nazi prosecutions mean for the world. I believe in consequences for atrocity and injustice. I also question whether humanity is the best provider of those, though the existence of such questioning CANNOT mean that we should throw up our hands and never punish, never seek justice.

One of my oldest friends in the world - so long a friend he is family - is a defense attorney, and a Jew.

He said to me once, "The system is not always good, but it is the best in the world, and I am proud to be part of it." He looked across the room, and said, "When it works, it is gratifying."
He said this while we were breaking bread together at the restaurant of a client he had saved from injustice. I will never forget it.

And now, for Hanning, for the survivors, I can do only this, in the face of Nazi prosecution so many years beyond the regime: pray that he is right - and that it works.

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