Let’s continue the Politics of Trek series with Episode 13: “The Conscience of the King.” This is a fascinating episode about a man who executed thousands of people to save thousands more. What conservative message could this send? The ends never justify the means.
As the episode begins, the Enterprise has been diverted to Planet Q by Kirk’s friend Dr. Thomas Leighton. Leighton claims to have discovered a new food source, but he’s lying. He really wants Kirk to investigate a visiting actor, Anton Karidian, whom Leighton believes to be Kodos the Executioner. Kodos was the governor of Tarsus IV, where he executed 4,000 people, including members of Kirk’s family. He did this because the colony was running out of food, and Kodos hoped to save half the colonists by executing the other half. Kodos was believed killed when he was overthrown, but his body was never found. Kirk initially refuses Leighton’s request. But when Leighton is mysteriously killed, Kirk arranges events so the Enterprise gives the acting troupe a ride to the next planet. One thing leads to another, and Kirk confronts Karidian, who is in fact Kodos.
Why It’s Conservative
A fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals involves the question of whether motives can excuse behavior. With rare exceptions, e.g. self-defense, conservatives judge people on their actions, not on what motivated those actions. Liberals, by comparison, take motives into account. This is why they consider things like root causes, the relative economic power of the parties, and whether the person’s goals outweigh the tactics they use to achieve those goals, i.e. whether their attempted ends justify their means. Conservatives reject this and look only at the means you have chosen. This episode comes down firmly on the conservative side.
For example, Leighton lies to bring the Enterprise to the planet, and Kirk reprimands him for it despite the extreme importance of his request. Kirk then engages in trickery himself and thereby alienates and endangers his friends and crew. Both times the message is that the ends, no matter how important, did not justify the chosen means. But the real focus is on Kodos. Here Kodos tries to justify his crimes to Kirk:
KARIDIAN: Kodos, whoever he was—
KIRK: Or is.
KARIDIAN: Or is. Kodos made a decision of life and death. Some had to die that others might live. You’re a man of decision, Captain. You ought to understand that.
KIRK: All I understand is that four thousand people were needlessly butchered.
KARIDIAN: In order to save four thousand others. And if the supply ships hadn’t come earlier than expected, this Kodos of yours might have gone down in history as a great hero.
KIRK: But he didn’t. And history has made its judgment.
KARIDIAN: If you’re so sure that I’m Kodos, why not kill me now? Let bloody vengeance take its final course! And see what difference it makes to this universe of yours.
KIRK: Those beautiful words, well acted, change nothing.
Kodos is walking through standard liberal arguments here. First he argues that he acted with the best of intentions. This is the argument liberals use to excuse abuses of power: that the ends were very important and justify the means. Then he argues that he deserves “understanding” because he was charged with making life and death decisions. This is moral relativism because it asks that he be judged under a different standard than others because of the circumstances he faced. This is the idea behind the liberal root-causes argument, which says that criminal behavior should be judged in light of a person’s economic circumstances or personal history. Finally, he argues that punishing him will not undo the crime. This is the liberal impulse to dismiss all aspects of criminal justice except reformation. Kodos essentially presents liberal criminal law in a nutshell.
Kirk rejects these arguments with disgust and derision and doesn’t even bother to refute the logic: “all I understand is that four thousand people were needlessly butchered.” That is conservatism: all that matters is what Kodos did, not why he did it. Guilty.
So what about punishment? McCoy, the show’s bleeding heart, suggests there’s no point in punishing Kodos because his victims are dead:
MCCOY: What if you decide he is Kodos? What then? Do you play God, carry his head through the corridors in triumph? That won’t bring back the dead, Jim.
KIRK: No, but they may rest easier.
Kirk rejects this because he sees justice as a matter of principle and asserts that it must account to the victims even if they are dead. Liberals increasingly see this view as “vindictive,” which is why they oppose long sentences, victim’s rights laws and so-called “victimless crimes.”
Kodos then suggests he has suffered enough when he says he no longer treasures life and he laments how he has been haunted by his crimes:
KARIDIAN: Blood thins. The body fails. One is finally grateful for a failing memory. I no longer treasure life, not even my own. I am tired! And the past is a blank.
Actor Arnold Moss does a tremendous job of conveying how this has tormented Kodos even with only these few words, but Kirk dismisses this idea out of hand. Unlike liberal Captain Picard in “The Survivors,” Kirk does not accept the idea that self-imposed suffering is sufficient. Instead, Kirk takes the conservative position that crimes must be punished objectively and cannot be overlooked just because the criminal thinks the punishment is too harsh.
So what does Kirk do? Interestingly, he tells Kodos that he won’t kill him despite wanting to:
KARIDIAN: Did you get everything you wanted, Captain Kirk?
KIRK: If I had gotten everything I wanted, you might not walk out of this room alive.
This is the conservative answer, though it is frustrating. This is Kirk returning to conservative form after his earlier abuses of power. This is his declaration that he will not use improper means to achieve his desired ends, i.e. he will not repeat Kodos’ mistake. Instead, he will let the system extract justice, which dovetails with Kirk’s law-and-order / rule-of-law conservatism.
So Kirk has acted conservatively. But merely arresting a man who thinks he was justified in killing 4,000 people isn’t enough to establish the complete conservative moral, which requires the imposition of a proportional punishment. Since there’s no time to show Kodos’ trial and execution (plus television is about drama), the writer imposes a little proportional cosmic justice and in the process makes the dual points that great crimes require great punishments and evil begets evil. Indeed, it turns out Kodos’ daughter has been killing the witnesses who can expose him. Kodos thought he had shielded her from his past and it destroys him to learn his deeds have poisoned her.
KARIDIAN: What have you done?
LENORE: What had to be done. They had to be silenced.
KARIDIAN: All of them? All seven? More blood on my hands?
LENORE: No Father, not anymore. I’m strong, Father. It’s nothing. . . . Don’t you see? All the ghosts are dead. I’ve buried them. There’s no more blood on your hands.
KARIDIAN: Oh, my child, my child. You’ve left me nothing! You were the one thing in my life untouched by what I’d done. . . Murder, flight, suicide, madness. I never wanted the blood on my hands ever to stain you.
She then kills her own father while trying to kill Kirk. The punishment is complete, justice is had, and the moral is clear: evil means are never justified and evil will receive the punishment it deserves. And that is a strong conservative message.
Next Time: “The Way To Eden”