Nutshell: The plot is overly complex and too perfect at times, but the payoff polemics make it a very strong hour.
The title says it all: "In time of war, the law falls silent." The plot concocted in part by the mysterious Sloan in "Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges" is one of meticulous planning and perfect execution. Everything goes as planned. Everything. And yet we're left with a feeling of certain dread. If a perfect plan has to step on so many people, exploit so many innocents, and undermine so many principles to get where it's going, how perfect is it? If you're Sloan, you would argue that it's simply no more perfect than the world itself.
That's the central argument of "Inter Arma...", an episode with attitudes that grow out of out of last season's "Inquisition" and "In the Pale Moonlight." In a way, Sloan's plot in this episode undermines everything the Federation stands for. And in a way, it reveals an attitude that's necessary to protect the Federation so its ideals might survive desperate times.
There are some who are calling DS9's exploration of these darker aspects of the Federation a conscious dismantling of the "Gene Roddenberry idealism." Is it? I don't think so (I'm one who thinks too much is often made of the "Roddenberry vision" and that his intentions are sometimes viewed through too narrow a scope), but I do think it raises the question of the ability of such ideals to survive when humanity is faced with a real threat to its existence. True idealism must be occasionally challenged for us to see what it truly represents and how practically it can be applied. In terms of this episode, is Section 31—that unofficial, unsanctioned, and generally unknown power of the Federation—an organization that acts in the Federation's best interests? A better question: Exactly how do you define "best interests"?
The plot of "Inter Arma..." is complex. Probably too complex, in fact, in the sense that every bit of it is calculated ahead of time by Sloan (William Sadler, in a performance that follows up his role in "Inquisition," and that's magnificent in its straightforwardness). I'm not sure how plausible it is that Sloan could anticipate every action Bashir makes in the course of this story, but, then again, the whole point of the episode is that Sloan is able to manipulate Bashir by understanding how his mind works and the sense of morality from which he approaches situations.
Like in "Inquisition," Sloan takes advantage of Bashir when he is scheduled to leave the station. This time, Bashir is to go to Romulus for a conference. Sloan wants to use Bashir as an avenue for convenient reconnaissance—or so he says. One can never take what Sloan says at face value. From square one we're pretty sure there's about 100 things Sloan knows that he's not telling Bashir. But Sisko sees this as an opportunity to see what Section 31 is up to and who else might be working for them. It runs far deeper than Sloan, that's for sure.
So Bashir finds himself on a starship to Romulus. One of the best qualities of "Inter Arma..." is the way it blindsides Bashir with its steady diet of surprises. It really puts him through a mental wringer. You see, Bashir is also working with Admiral Ross (Barry Jenner) to investigate Sloan. Ross and Sisko had agreed to use Bashir's recruitment by Sloan to learn the nature of Section 31's involvement in the Romulan government. There are suspicions that the Romulan government has an operative in its midst that is working for Section 31.
One might wonder why—especially considering the Federation and Romulans are allies in the effort to defeat the Dominion—Section 31 would investigate and plot around an ally. The reason is simple: Allies are temporary. DS9's history through the last four seasons is perfect proof of that. The Federation has faced hostility from the Klingons, Romulans, and Dominion. Now the Cardassians have been absorbed by the Dominion and the Klingons, Romulans, and Federation have their own alliance. It makes perfect sense that Section 31, given their nature, would want now to plant their moles in the Romulan government—since, Sloan predicts, they're destined to become the next major threat after the Dominion is forced back to the Gamma Quadrant and the Klingons find themselves too weak to threaten anybody. (One of many brilliantly telling exchanges: Bashir: "This war isn't over, and you're already planning for the next!" Sloan: "Well put.")
This is all very insidious and neat to ponder. At the same time, it challenges the morality of Starfleet up to a point: Starfleet wouldn't dream of "approving" the actions of Section 31, yet they have absolutely no intention of trying to stop what Section 31 does, either. As Sloan says, the Federation may need someone like Section 31 to look at the bigger picture. The question is where do you stand on moral ground, and can you live with yourself? (As Sisko put it last year, "This is a huge victory for the good guys," and he "will learn to live with it.")
The details of Sloan's plot are intriguing. I won't go into endless detail (this is a story so complex that it would take forever to summarize), but I'll put it in a nutshell. Sloan wants Bashir to subtly determine if a powerful Romulan official, Senator Koval (played by John Fleck, who appeared as a Romulan years ago in TNG's "The Mind's Eye"), has an illness that can be carefully manipulated into sudden advancement, effectively causing an undetectable assassination. But the plan takes a number of twists that puts Bashir into difficult positions where he must act on his own. Ultimately, he recruits Romulan Senator Cretak (Adrienne Barbeau, painting a much more sympathetic character than was performed earlier this season by Megan Cole) into helping investigate the leads and stopping the assassination.
There are twists upon twists, including an explanation of who Sloan "really" is, which itself turns out to be completely bogus. By the time it's all over, Sloan is presumed dead, Cretak's life is destroyed, and Koval—who we learn is actually a Section 31 mole—has solidified his position in the Romulan government as one skeptical of the Federation, thus making him more powerful as a Federation operative.
The way this all plays out is perfect. Too perfect, really. But it's done with great skill and clarity thanks to Ron Moore's script and an atmospheric direction by David Livingston that evokes a sense of mystery and intimidation involving Romulan society. The scene before the Romulan senate that reveals the "plot," is impressively executed.
Meanwhile, Bashir, who is smart and resourceful, is nevertheless manipulated like a chump. (This manipulation is effective and enlightening concerning a set of various characters' motives and philosophies, unlike the manipulation within Voyager's "Course: Oblivion," which was simply infuriatingly arbitrary.)
So is Bashir naive for embracing his idealism and allowing himself to be manipulated? I say no, because the whole point of the story is that moral idealism is a choice, and Bashir is sticking by his guns in the face of those whose actions he views as appallingly wrong. This episode isn't subtle about its debate. That's part of why it's so powerful. When it's done well, I'm a big fan of the Heated Substantive Argument. Seeing the moral questions arise from the situation is interesting, but seeing the moral questions tackled directly through a one-on-one verbal argument between two characters can be equally interesting.
In this case, we learn that Ross had been working with Sloan to manipulate Bashir into going through with this whole charade in the interests of fortifying the Federation's strategic position. Bashir figures it out and privately challenges Ross. The discussion that ensues is pure polemics, and I appreciated the points from both sides of the table. Ross' situation reveals a real desperation, a weakness on the part of the Federation; it's doing what it has to in order to survive. With this war on, the ideal moral world is simply implausible to some.
People like Bashir, who maintain their moral compass even in the depths of this danger, deserve respect, and I appreciated the sincere respect Sloan reveals to Bashir, even though he puts Bashir through such a devious game to fulfill Section 31's agenda. But at the same time, who's to say that Bashir wouldn't be tempted to work with an organization like Section 31 if he were in Ross' pained position, ordering wave after wave of Starfleet soldiers to their deaths?
In that way, "Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges" is completely conscious with the Roddenberry idealism. The question posed is whether that idealism can survive a universe with such increased chaos and danger, and whether the war will permanently change the Federation's ideals.
As a final note, let me pose a frightening question: What if Sisko knew Ross was working with Section 31 from the beginning? It's speculation that could very easily be false, but given the nature of the war and Sisko's role in bringing the Romulans into it, who can say? When considering the plausible substance of Sloan's and Ross' arguments and Sisko's own involvement in the war since day one, could perhaps the moral rules have been so distorted that the rules' bending is now rationalized by DS9's own captain? It might not be the case, but I certainly think it could be.
"Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges" indeed.
Upcoming: Several reruns, followed by a dive into the big final stretch of the series.