Daily Archives: June 1, 2008
Just like he did in 2005’s excellent documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, filmmaker Alex Gibney is able to distill a complex topic into a coherent argument. His Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side looks deep into the repugnant state of justice after 9/11 and the Bush Administration’s disregard for the law. It’s decidedly uncomfortable and upsetting, but Gibney’s film should be essential viewing for everyone to fully understand what questionable lessons we are sending out to the world under the guise of winning the indefinite War on Terror.
In late 2002, Dilawar drove two passengers out of town in his taxi. He was stopped at an Afghan militia checkpoint and he and his passengers were turned over to the U.S. military. The Afghan militia leader accused the trio of being responsible for rocket attacks against U.S. forces (In reality, the militia leader was responsible and just turning over innocent men to make inroads with military personnel). Dilawar was sent to Bagram prison where he was subjected to sleep deprivation, physical abuse, and made to stand for hours on end handcuffed to the ceiling. He died after two days in custody. The military coroner ruled that Dilawar’s death was a homicide. The report was swept under the rug until a New York Times journalist went searching for answers. The official who instigated the “interrogation techniques” was rewarded and sent to teach her harsh brand of degrading interrogation to another prison – Abu Ghraib. I think we all know how well that turned out.
Like No End in Sight, which Gibney also produced, the film benefits enormously by staying away from brash finger pointing and hysterics. It slowly assembles its methodical case using hard evidence, like the prison coroner’s report and declassified memos, and a bevy of interviews from the people who were on the frontlines and behind the scenes in Washington. Gibney builds a devastating case that left me sick to my stomach and overwhelmed with the urge to weep. Taxi to the Dark Side is a powerful and masterfully assembled indictment on how far the United States of America has slid from its moral high ground. I felt sorry for the numerous innocent men plucked from their homes and tortured. I felt sorry for the soldiers being pressured to get results fast and through whatever creative means only to be turned into patsies by a government looking to pin “a few bad apples.” I felt intense shame in my own government condoning degrading and humiliating practices that stretch the legal definition of torture. And I felt burning anger at the realization that President Bush had tucked away a little provision in a bill signed into law that stated no officials in his administration could be tried for war crimes. The soldiers on the ground who followed orders set out by those officials, however, were fair game. Bush pardoned himself!
Gibney uses Dilawar’s story as a framing device that broadens the scope of the film. He explores the whole nature of torture and the questionable tactics our government and military have engaged in since 9/11 in the name of keeping the country safe. But as the film continues on we still remember Dilawar. His death casts a pall that hangs over the entire running time that serves as a potent rejoinder to any interview clip or TV segment where officials dismiss the severity of torture techniques (Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld scribbled on one memo complaining that he stands many hours a day, so how could this be torture?). Thankfully, the film also comes back to Dilawar during the closing moments to draw out the man’s humanity and shine a closer look at the personal cost of such illegal practices. It’s sad and shocking that well over 90 percent of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and U.S. coalition prisons were turned in by locals for money. Who knows however many innocent men like Dilawar are imprisoned without any path to see a court (recent Supreme Court rulings have said that detainees do have a right to contest their imprisonment in U.S. courts).
What is all too evident is that Bush administration officials were establishing a hazy and vague definition of torture on purpose. This of course had the benefit of not linking their names to illegal practices that could lead to war crimes. This also made sure there was no set guideline for interrogation and detention. Without any guidelines and rules the soldiers were expected to get results with no oversight. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that being isolated in a foreign country and surrounded by a culture of machismo is going to breed cruelty if there is no enforcement of law. The U.S. skirted the Geneva Conventions by denying suspects any rights and saying they could be detained, without charge, for the rest of their lives. Vice President Cheney proudly declares that the enemy plays dirty and therefore America has to resort to the same dirty tactics. One soldier recounts a mentally handicapped prisoner who officials kept swearing was just putting on an act. “This is the new cover for al-Qaeda,” they were told even as the man ate his own feces. I’m sorry, but my country should be morally above whomever we deem an enemy. The “he started it” defense does not register for me.
But perhaps the biggest non moral related sticking point is that torture is notorious for not generating factual claims. When someone is being tortured they will say whatever to make the situation cease, and this includes fabricating tales about terrorists and an Iraq link to 9/11. Instead of verifying and corroborating these confessions, the interrogators jot them down as fact, send them to the brass above, and that’s how the U.S. produced sources that said Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Ladin share a friendship bracelet and have brunch on Tuesdays. Even if you do not object to torture on moral grounds, and I pity you if you cannot, then a thinking person should at least object to torture on the very basis that it does not work. It produces bad intelligence, false intelligence, and in a rush to conflict that can yield terrible and far-reaching ramifications (six years in Iraq and counting, insurgent recruitment rising, the erosion of the U.S.’s standing over the world). The ends clearly do not even approach justifying the means.
After detainee abuses, President Bush declared to TV reporters that, “The United States doesn’t torture.” The asterisk to that declaration is that the U.S. rejects the internationally agreed upon definition of torture and will decide what constitutes torture, and even then we’ll just outsource it to countries that will torture. Taxi to the Dark Side is a sobering and powerful film that will serve as an important reminder for generations to come about the damning evidence of torture. The film is presented with clam and precise logic but it still manages to eradicate any argument that torture is acceptable under the right circumstances (advocates like to cite the idea of a ticking bomb and a suspect who knows the location). One interview says it all. He’s an FBI interrogator for over 20 years, and he says that to glean workable intelligence you don’t beat someone and make them fear you; you make them like you. You play “good cop” not “insane cop,” and you will gather actionable, verifiable, helpful intelligence and you have nothing to feel guilty over. If only the current administration had more men with such clarity and moral fiber.
Nate’s Grade: A