Taxi to the Dark Side

We have the terrorists on the run. We’re keeping them on the run. One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice.–George W. Bush, State of the Union address, January 28, 2003

We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies.–Dick Cheney, Meet the Press, September 16, 2001.

No matter what else it does, Alex Gibney’s measured, thorough documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side (IMDB), provides us with chilling evidence of the use of torture on detainees at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram, while placing that evidence in a powerful narrative that should force audiences into a more open conversation about the use of these techniques in fighting for American freedoms. Unfortunately, I fear that despite the film’s well-deserved Oscar, Taxi will not find the audience it deserves or needs, whether due to Iraq War exhaustion or due to other, external factors such as a crowded indie film marketplace. Just as the recent Winter Soldier hearings seem to have made barely a ripple in the mainstream media, Gibney’s provocative film may be presenting us with questions that many Americans don’t want to address. In fact, one of the unforgettable elements of Gibney’s film was the uncertain status of the “we” in Bush and Cheney’s comments above, both of which were cited in the film. What is the nature of the “American justice” we are presenting to the rest of the world? And what, precisely, is lurking in the “shadows” described by the Vice President?

Gibney’s film opens, powerfuly, with the story of Dilawar, a young Afghani taxi cab driver (hence the title) who was swept up when an informant fingered him as a participant in a rocket launch against an American base in Afghanistan. Gibney is careful to humanize Dilawar, to introduce us to his grieving family and to help us understand his essentially gentle nature. We then learn that Dilawar was subjected to incredible violence by his captors, his legs punched and battered so repeatedly that had he lived, both of his legs would have to be amputated. We also learn that Dilawar was entirely innocent of the charges levied against him. In fact, the guilty party was the very person who accused him in the first place.

Dilawar’s story comes from several sources, including his family of course, but we also learn from two New York Times reporters, Carlotta Gall and Tim Golden, that although official reports stated that Dilawar died of “natural causes,” his autopsy listed his death as a homicide (Times critic A.O. Scott offers some useful background here). These inconsistencies–and reports that photographs of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib–prompted some discussion in the mainstream media and before Congress about what constitutes torture, and it is in this context that Dilawar’s story begins to stand against the larger justification of torture offered by Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo, whom Gibney interviews long enough for Yoo to reassert his position that it’s only torture if the actions are “equivalent in intensity to…organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”

We also learn about Dilawar’s story from some of his interrogators, many of whom now seem deeply haunted by their actions, troubled by the fact that they allowed themselves to see someone like Dilawar as less than human and angered by the fact that the understanding of appropriate interrogation techniques had become so clouded, with many Bush administration officials offering rationalizations for why the Geneva Conventions are “outdated” in a war on terror that is potentially without end. These rationalizations are, perhaps, best illustrated by Donald Rumsfeld’s glib note that if he, as 70-year old, spends several hours per day on his feet, then forcing prisoners to stand couldn’t be torture could it? While Rumsfeld later characterized the note as a poor attempt at humor, the incident raises important questions about the seriousness he was bringing to the issue.

These guards and interrogators are filmed in heavy shadows, perhaps evoking the dark “shadows” in which Cheney explained “we” would now be operating. At the very least, they are a sober reminder of what the interrogators themselves have lost, and Gibney reminds us that while many of these guards have been punished severely for what they have done, the consequences for Bush administration officials have been minimal at best. I don’t think that Gibeny is excusing the guards for their actions, but he is certainly making a larger political point about how the depiction of the guards as a few “bad apples” misses the point entirely.

Finally, Gibney’s film reminds us that torture rarely if ever works as a means of getting information. In fact, even though we are often presented with ticking time-bomb scenarios on shows such as 24, torture often yields false information, as the victim tells the torturer what he or she wants to hear. Gibney doesn’t seem to say so explicitly in the film, but I’m not fully convinced that “information” is even the goal of torture in all cases. Instead, I wonder if it isn’t actually an expression of power, of dominance, as the torturers play to the detainees’ fears (there are extended segments where people discuss all kinds of psychological torture), or in some cases, enact physical harm.

And this is where one of the chief moral and logical centers of the film comes into play. During the closing credits, Gibney’s late father, Frank, who was an interrogator in the Japanese internment camps during World War II, removes his oxygen mask long enough to denounce the use of torture, both because it doesn’t provide effective information and because it doesn’t–or shouldn’t–represent American values. More crucially, this is where I think Roger Ebert is correct to challenge the argument, offered by Kenji Fujishima, among others, that Gibney should have been fairer to “the other side.” Even if Taxi to the Dark Side fails to revive a discussion of the effects of torture now, it is important, as we move into a new presidential election season that offers us a chance to choose new leaders and to redefine our image at home and abroad, that we find new narratives and new ways of talking about the war on terrorism.

Cross-posted at New Critics.

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