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,

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A Psychotic Episode: The Twilight Zone “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

william-shatnerIn the backstory to “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, Bob Wilson (William Shatner) had a nervous breakdown during an airplane flight and was sent to a sanitarium to recover. The story begins six months later with Bob and wife Julia (Christine White) boarding an airliner to take another flight. The plot is marked by situational irony: A man who appears to be having a psychotic episode has an accurate perception of reality.

During a psychotic episode, a person will “have trouble distinguishing between what is real and what is not.”1 This can include hallucinations in which they “hear, see, smell, taste, or feel something that is not actually there.”2 Hallucinations can be preceded by “early warning signs” including feeling “anxious, tense, irritable, or depressed.”3

Bob is in a depressed and anxious mood, which could be an early warning sign of a psychotic episode. When he is seated next to the auxiliary exit, he tries to calm himself. Later, when the flight attendant closes the door, he looks back with alarm. As he talks to Julia about his time in the sanitarium, he is sad and expresses low self-esteem, telling her that everything is intact except him.

In his depressed and anxious state, Bob appears to have a hallucination: He sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane, “tampering with the engines” and lifting the “cowling plates.” However, no else sees the creature, and no one believes his story. This creates a dramatic question for the viewer: Is he hallucinating, or is the gremlin real?

Whether or not the gremlin is real, Bob is in a no-win situation: If the gremlin is real, it might crash the plane, and everyone will die; but if he is hallucinating, he will have to return to the sanitarium, and this will put a further strain on his marriage and family. In the climax of the episode, Bob decides to trust his perception of reality. He steals a gun and shoots the gremlin.

In the final scene, the dramatic question is finally answered. Rod Serling, as narrator, says there is often “tangible proof” after one has entered the Twilight Zone. The evidence of the damaged wing proves that Bob was not hallucinating. The gremlin was real.

The gremlin is more than a physical creature. With its ability to defy the laws of gravity—jumping on and off the wing of the plane—it is supernatural. The episode shows how people who claim to perceive a supernatural reality are often viewed as crazy.


  1. “What is Psychosis?” Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, accessed January 1, 2015,
  2. “The Symptoms of Psychosis,” Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, accessed March 13, 2015,
  3. Ibid.

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