It was, ostensibly, a cost-saving measure when they started — an episode without any major special effects, made with existing sets and costumes. While they certainly weren’t doing the bare minimum in putting together “The Drumhead,” the crew and writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation probably didn’t believe it had any special gravity. Its inspiration, the McCarthy trials of America’s second Red Scare, were a distant memory by 1991, and the threat of internal communism had wholly failed to materialize.
During college, about 14 years after the broadcast of “The Drumhead,” I watched a bootlegged copy of the episode. Immediately following September 11, 2001, I had been filled with venom and bile, my guts knotted in a dangerous blend of patriotism and blind fury. With the passage of time, however, my sentiment began to cool, and by the launch of the Iraq War in 2003, I was filled with a quietly growing dread — perhaps things weren’t quite so clear-cut as they had seemed immediately after the event, perhaps the steps we’d taken in defense of our country had overstepped their intent. But at the same time, things had not changed so much for me, so how bad could these new legislations and programs be, really?
The loss of liberty in the pursuit of security is the core theme of “The Drumhead.” Beginning with the interrogation of a visiting scientist turned spy, an investigation consumes the cast. Loyalties are called into question, and one crewman’s career is effectively ruined when it’s discovered that his grandfather was a Romulan, one of the show’s antagonist species. The crewman in question did not do anything wrong, did not break laws or regulations — his only crime was his genetics.
Re-watching “The Drumhead,” it’s impossible to ignore the parallels that exist in our post-9/11 world. The Patriot Act and its provisions enabled the collection of information on millions of Americans — a practice deemed benign by some, but deeply troubling to others. With this quantity of data collection, it becomes considerably easier to justify a political witchhunt against anybody who has spoken with certain people, checked out specific books from the library, visited websites of a questionable nature. These people are not criminals, and indeed, the collection of data on those who are not under reasonable suspicion flies in the face of our societal values of privacy and the presumption of innocence.
Around 2005, these messages helped to refine my lines of thinking. Quietly-growing dread is easy to ignore when it is non-specific, but the contents of that episode of Star Trek made me think in much clearer terms about the security state. Selfishly, I had considered myself immune to such suspicions, that my privileges as a white US citizen meant that this data collection and added security was for my protection. “The Drumhead” made it clear that, quite the contrary, a slight to the freedoms of one is a slight to the freedoms of all citizens — or as it’s quoted by Captain Jean-Luc Picard: