Taxi To The Darkside
|Alex Gibney||Narrator (voice)|
|Directed by||Alex Gibney|
On December 5th, 2002, a young Afghan cab driver named Dilawar was arrested after driving three fares to a small village, and was brought to the prison at the US Air Force base at Bagram in Afghanistan. Five days later he was dead. He had been chained to the ceiling of his cell and severely beaten by his American interrogators. One of the techniques used was a practice called “knee strikes,” severe knee blows to the subject’s legs that left them so traumatized that had he lived they would have had to be amputated. Dilawar was accused of having been involved in a terror rocket attack. His interrogators came fairly quickly to the conclusion that he was probably innocent. But they kept at it, just in case.
Alex Gibney (Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room) has made a documentary that may be the scariest movie of the year, because it is about something current, ongoing, and deeply sinister: the calculating and systematic attacks on this country’s ideals, principles, and laws by the very people sworn to uphold them. As Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Chief of Staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, describes the administration he once served, “In a legal sense, I think they wanted to discard the Constitution and write a new one.”
The suspension of habeas corpus, the dismissal of the Geneva Conventions as “quaint” and outdated, the revelation of the shocking abuses at Abu Graib and Bagram, the rendition of detainees to less delicate countries for “torture by proxy,” black sites, the waterboarding controversy, the holding of prisoners for years at Guantanamo without charge, evidence, or trial; these are just some of the chilling erosions of American principles that have been perpetrated under the cover of the Global War on Terror.
“What,” defenders demand, “if you have a suspect in custody who knows about a ticking time bomb that could kill hundreds? Wouldn’t you torture him to get the information and save those lives?” To which Gibney replies “How often does that happen?” The answer is that essentially it doesn’t. And the information obtained by torture is unreliable. As historian Alfred W. McCoy bluntly puts it, “it’s inefficient, it’s inhumane, and it does not produce information.” One of the young American interrogators at Bagram interviewed by Gibney admits that “there’s a steep drop-off” of the value of prisoners under torture. “After two days, they’re mostly bumbling idiots. After three days, they’re useless.”
The Bush Administration disagrees. According to Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, the Geneva Conventions don’t apply to suspected terrorists, and the President of the United States has the authority to order torture. Not that he would ever use that authority. According to Condi Rice, "The United States government does not authorize or condone torture of detainees," and does not allow their rendition to other countries for that purpose. George W. Bush puts it more colorfully: “One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice.”
The soldiers at Bagram who killed Dilawar and another detainee were not trained interrogators. They were operating under a very ill-defined set of directives, and with the tacit approval of their superiors to use physical and psychological brutality. It brought out the beast in a group of young enlisted men and women, some of whom, interviewed here, seem gentle enough souls. “I didn’t want to be seen as going against my fellow soldiers,” explains one soft-spoken young private later court-martialed for abuses at Bagram. Says Wilkerson, “You need rules to restrict that tendency in soldiers.”
In general, this sort of scandal penetrates our consciousness only when somebody stirs up the muck. Dilawar’s death was originally registered by the military as due to “natural causes.” Then a couple of New York Times reporters dug into the case and found clear evidence of brutality and the murder of an innocent man, and the military reluctantly began an investigation.
Gibney makes his case thoroughly and skillfully, with documents, records, photographs, and interviews that develop what he calls ”a murder mystery” that brings out “the mood, the atmosphere, and how and why the murder was committed.”
Gibney’s father had been a Naval Intelligence officer during WWII. He was in the hospital, terminally ill, when his son was making this film, but Frank Gibney wanted to be on the record. He wanted to express his disgust and fury with the Bush Administration’s accommodation of torture and evasion of law. In their interrogation of prisoners on Okinawa, the elder Gibney said, he and his colleagues never considered using the brutal techniques the Japanese employed. “We thought our principles gave us a strength the enemy didn’t have,” he recalled. “It’s what made us different.” The Americans found that by using methods that squared with the values they believed they were fighting for, they could elicit information more effectively.
Taxi to the Dark Side joins a growing list of outspoken documentaries that question the rationale and conduct of America’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our willingness to destroy freedom in order to save it. It brings to mind Benjamin Franklin’s much-quoted observation: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be