Torturous ‘Taxi’ ride
The Arizona Republic (USA)
March 20, 2008
Taxi to the Dark Side is a stunning indictment of torture as policy, a brilliant documentary whose arguments are so well-supported and reasonably made that you can’t ignore them.
You don’t have to agree with them – many people won’t – but you will not be able to simply set them aside as part of the cost of war. If the purpose of a documentary is to make you think, and it is, then this film succeeds magnificently.
That isn’t to say that Alex Gibney’s film, which won the Oscar for best documentary, is easily watched or enjoyed; pictures and film clips of torture are stomach-turning. Many of them the uncensored versions of images we’ve seen before. Also, it’s difficult to listen to soldiers speak in calm, measured terms about how they became almost animalistic in their pursuit of information from prisoners.
But it’s fascinating, not just as a study of war and its practices but of human nature, as well.
Gibney tells the story of Dilawar, a 22-year-old cab driver in Afghanistan who was arrested in December 2002 on suspicion of transporting terrorists. He was imprisoned at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Five days later, Dilawar was dead, after having been deprived of sleep, suspended by handcuffs from the ceiling and beaten severely. His death was ruled a homicide by the coroner. The photos we see of his body make that no surprise.
Gibney visits Dilawar’s village, talks to his family, investigates his case thoroughly through interviews, documents and more.
Yet he also uses Dilawar’s death as the entry point for talking about what constitutes torture (it’s not as easily defined as you’d think; witness the Bush administration’s hedging on waterboarding), what its merits are (and aren’t) and whether there is ever a reason to use torture.
Interviews with some of the men accused (some convicted) of torturing prisoners are amazing – amazing not just for what they were charged with doing but also that they’re so open in discussing it.
Are they to blame? Are they examples of the “bad apples” we have heard so much about at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay? They seem so measured, so collected when talking about their confusion and lack of direction from above.
And yet one of their lawyers discusses just that – how his client seems like such a nice young soldier but talked about kicking a prisoner so many times that his knee got sore and he had to switch legs.
The blame is placed mostly on official direction, or lack thereof, when it comes to interrogating prisoners. John Woo, a former Justice Department official, weighs in. So, too, do former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and, especially, Vice President Dick Cheney, by way of clips. Cheney is shown telling Tim Russert that, after 9/11, we must begin fighting terrorists on their own terms.
It’s not as if Meet the Press is a cable-access show. Some of what we see here we’ve seen before. But placed in this context, the words embody a terrifying reality.
There’s never any suggestion that terrorists aren’t bad people who deserve punishment. But there is plenty of debate as to how many of the people arrested are terrorists, and what we hope to gain by detaining them. And is torture even a reliable method, anyway?
A former FBI interrogator makes the case that it isn’t. In the course of about 45 seconds, he offers an example of how offering a prisoner deals – education for his children, for example – can be more effective. He’s so good at it, you believe him.
Sen. John McCain shows up somewhat frequently and is illustrative of the fluid nature of the debate. When first we see him, he’s all fire-and-brimstone, going after military officers at a hearing, making the case against torture. As a former prisoner of war (we’re shown footage of him held captive in North Vietnam), it seems a sensible position.
Yet more recently McCain voted against overriding President Bush’s veto of legislation that would have limited the CIA to the same interrogation techniques used by the Army (and banned some specific types of torture, including waterboarding).
There are no easy answers here, and the film does not purport to offer any. It’s not a Michael Moore screed. While his films can be hugely entertaining, Moore never lets you forget that it’s Moore doing the talking, the thinking, the arguing.
In Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney lets the story, brutal though it is, speak for itself. And it does so, emphatically.