The Doctrine of Proportionality: Star Trek “Balance of Terror”

balance of terrorIn Star Trek “Balance of Terror” a Romulan ship destroys four “Earth Outpost Stations” that border the Neutral Zone, a demilitarized region of space. The Captain of the Enterprise, James T. Kirk (William Shatner), must decide what to do after this “unprovoked attack.” Kirk’s response to the Romulan attack is based on the doctrine of proportionality: “a state is legally allowed to unilaterally defend itself and right a wrong provided the response is proportional to the injury suffered. “1 An important theme in the episode is a proportional response to an unprovoked attack can prevent a full-scale war.

Following the Romulan attack, Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is the voice of pacifism. He is against attacking the Romulans, suggesting that it will violate the peace treaty and lead to war. However, a non-response would only increase the likelihood of war. By refusing to use military force in response to an unprovoked attack, a lasting peace is rarely achieved. Having paid no price for their act of aggression, the aggressor is emboldened to attack again.

In contrast to McCoy’s pacifism, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Mr. Stiles (Paul Comi) both want to attack the Romulans. Stiles tells Kirk: “We have to attack. If we don’t … they’ll report we saw their weapons and ran.” If the Enterprise does not respond, the Romulans will send more ships and destroy more Earth Outpost Stations. Spock says, “Weakness is something we dare not show.” After considering the viewpoints of Spock and McCoy, Kirk attacks the Romulan Bird of Prey and destroys it. The Romulans pay a high price for their act of aggression—the loss of their flagship—which dissuades them from attacking again. Kirk’s proportional response does not lead to war. On the contrary, it restores the balance of power between Earth and the Romulans and ends the conflict.

Taking military action after an unprovoked attack is a deterrent against future attacks, and the stronger the response, the greater the deterrent. “Balance of Terror” reminds us that to stop an aggressor from attacking again, there will often be a cost. In the battle between the Enterprise and the Romulans, Robert Tomlinson (Stephen Mines) is killed. Kirk comforts the grieving widow by telling her, “There was a reason.” Tomlinson died in the line of duty for a noble reason: to prevent future attacks by the Romulans. This is the goal of any just military action: to save the lives of innocent civilians, not only in the present, but also in the future. If Kirk hadn’t destroyed the Romulan ship, the Romulans would have sent more ships and started a war.


  1. Lionel Beehner, “Israel and the Doctrine of Proportionality,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 13, 2006,

The Sheep Who Refused To Fight: A Fable

sheep-goatA goat herder bought a herd of young goats and raised them in a field that he owned. But he was mean and cruel, and enjoyed yelling at them, and chasing them around the field. Then one evening, he left the gate open, and when he came back the next morning, the goats were gone.

The goats had fled to a grassy plain where they could graze. They enjoyed their freedom and had plenty to eat. However, one night, after the goats went to sleep, they were attacked by a wolf. No matter where the herd went, the wolf followed them, and every night the goats wondered which goat he would eat next.

A nanny goat decided to do something about the wolf. She waited until sunrise (when the wolf went to sleep), then she tip-toed away, and walked all day until she came to a flock of sheep.

“A wolf has eaten nearly half of my herd,” the nanny goat said to the sheep. “Can you send your strongest and bravest rams to help us?”

The sheep, both ewes and rams, all replied, “We are peaceful sheep and don’t believe in fighting. But if any goats want to come and live with us, they are welcome here.”

The nanny goat pleaded with the sheep; however, no matter what she said, they would not change their minds, so she kicked the ground and left them.

When the nanny goat returned home, to her great surprise, the young billy goats had grown horns.

That night, she gathered the billy goats together, and they rammed the wolf in the head until he dropped dead.

Several days later, a ewe lamb came to the goats and said, “A pack of wolves has attacked our flock. Can you send your strongest and bravest billy goats to help us?”

The billy goats shook their heads. “No; it’s not our fight.”

The nanny goat reminded her, “None of your rams came when we needed help.”

The ewe lamb pleaded with the goats, yet no matter what she said, she could not change their minds. So she kicked the ground and left them.

When the ewe lamb returned home, she bleated and cried. The wolves were gone, and all that remained of her flock was bits of wool and scattered bones.

When War is Justified: The Hunger Games Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)


In Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014) Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is unwilling to become the Mockingjay: the symbol for the rebellion. An important theme in the film is the morality of war. When a government murders and enslaves its own citizens, armed rebellion against that government is morally justified.

Katniss does not want to be the symbol for the rebellion for two reasons: She is angry that the rebels did not rescue Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and there is nothing personally at stake for her in the fight. Her mother and sister are safe; she does not know if Peeta is dead or alive; and she appears to be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Katniss has neither the emotional strength nor the desire to be the Mockingjay.

Unless we are emotionally moved by other people’s suffering, we are unlikely to take action to help them. Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) understands this when he tells President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) that Katniss needs to “see what the Capitol did to 12.” Plutarch wants Katniss to witness the aftermath of the bombing because he knows the emotional impact it will have on her. She agrees to go to District 12 and is shocked by the death and destruction, falling to the ground in anguish. After seeing the human remains of thousands of innocent civilians, her heart is changed.

Katniss’s motivation to fight against President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is strengthened further when she learns that Peeta is alive. On a television talk show, Peeta calls for a cease fire, but Katniss understands that peace with Snow is not possible: “There can’t be a cease fire, not after everything Snow has done.” After negotiating with Coin for Peeta’s rescue and pardon, Katniss agrees to become the Mockingjay. She now has something personally at stake in the fight against the Capitol: saving Peeta’s life.

The rebellion against Snow is justified because he is killing and enslaving the people of Panem. When he bombs a hospital, Katniss realizes the nature of his evil: “He’s never going to stop.” The nature of evil is that it will not stop unless it is resisted. After the hospital is destroyed, Katness addresses Snow and the Capitol in a video: “If we burn, you burn with us.” The evil committed by Snow motivates Katniss to become more than a symbol; she actively joins the fight.

What Mockingjay Part 1 says about war is relevant to events in the world today. The rebellion against the Capitol parallels the current war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). With Snow, there are only two options: submit to his rule or be destroyed. Similarly, ISIS leaves its victims with only two options: convert to their version of Islam or be killed. According to a UN report, “over 24,000 Iraqi civilians have been injured or killed by ISIS in the first eight months of 2014.”1 However, the limited military response—a campaign of air strikes—will not be enough to defeat the terrorist organization. Unfortunately, there is no political will among the American-led coalition to send soldiers to fight ISIS. Western leaders are emotionally impacted by the deaths of innocent civilians in Iraq and Syria, but there is nothing personally at stake for them in the fight.

Mockingjay – Part 1 has an important message for pacifists: There is a time when war is justified. Peaceful protests are unlikely to lead to freedom in a country ruled by an oppressive dictatorship. If a dictator is killing unarmed civilians, it may take more than international outrage and economic sanctions to stop him. When diplomacy fails, war is sometimes the only way to achieve a lasting peace.


  1. Samuel Smith, ” UN Report on ISIS: 24,000 Killed, Injured by Islamic State; Children Used as Soldiers, Women Sold as Sex Slaves,” Christian Post, October 9, 2014,