Military Commissions Declared Illegal…on Battlestar Galactica

by Chris Borgen

Well, it’s a start, I guess. In the absence of President Jed Bartlett ruminating about the legality of assassination on the West Wing, it’s actually this science fiction series that engages issues of international law/ international relations more than any other TV show. Including probably the evening news. On last week’s episode, a sitting President authorized a secret military commission to act as judge, jury, and executioner for any person who had collaborated with the enemy Cylons. (In the end, a new President ended the process of using military commissions.)

In a nice twist, in the previous few episodes our heroes were cast as insurgents fighting the occupying Cylons using such tactics as suicide bombings, hiding weapons in holy sites, and breeding general mayhem. Such unflinching attempts at putting viewers in the shoes of the people they would least like to be is one of the real strengths of the use of literature or film (OK, a sci-fi TV show in this case) to spur a discussion about morality and legal principles

Of course, Galactica is not the first science fiction show to do so; Star Trek, in its various incarnations, was famous for grappling with contemporary issues of law, politics, and morality. (Not necessarily to the enjoyment of its viewers, as one non-lawyer friend said to me: “Captain Kirk used to shoot aliens with phasers, Picard just takes them to arbitration. Who wants to watch that?”)

Star Trek: The Next Generation received the international law scholarly treatment in Lawrence Roberts & Michael Scharf, The Interstellar Relations of the Federation: International Law and Star Trek: The Next Generation, 25 UNIVERSITY OF TOLEDO LAW REVIEW 577 (1994). See/hear a description of the article here.

Battlestar Galactica is ready and waiting.

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