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by Chris Knipp

Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side, a documentary about America's use of torture, takes its title from a remark made by Dick Cheney to Tim Russert on the Meet the Press program of September 16, 2001 that to fight the war on terrorism, "We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will." The film doesn't contain anything wholly new, just more complete detail and important clarifications, such as that Guantanamo uses very much the same basic methods as Abu Ghraib, though the location is cleaner and, of course, wasn't formerly used by Saddam Hussein.

The film's central figure, a 22-year-old Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, was essentially beaten to death by American soldiers in the Bagram prison. He did not live long once his ill-trained though plainly-directed captors got hold of him--but his final hours were terrifying and horrible. They kicked his legs till they turned to pulp, and both legs would have had to be amputated had he lived. A heart condition caused an embolism that went to his brain and was the cause of death, which on the official U.S. papers given to Dilawar's family, in English so they did not know what they meant, was "homicide," but the officer in charge of the prison denied this when queried.

Gibney, whose previous work includes the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, presents interviews with some of the American soldiers responsible for Dilawar's death. They were, of course, only following orders. Other talking heads clarify the fact that the "gloves are off" policy by U.S. authorities following 9/11 goes back to Cheney, was approved by Bush, carried out with gusto by Rumsfeld, and sent directly down the line to the low ranking and inexperienced people whose behavior after the Abu Ghraib scandal emerged was claimed by authorities to be that of people on the "night shift" or "a few bad apples." This film thoroughly disproves that claim.

We know that Alberto Gonzales, George W. Bush's smirking rubber stamp Attorney General (one chokes on the thought that such a man held such a title in this country), would not condemn the use of torture, nor would his successor agree that waterboarding was torture. The authorities made clear, inevitably, that the Geneva Conventions were not going to apply to the "war on terror." Behind all this is the fact that the U.S. administration was willing to blatantly disregard the rule of law, domestic as well as international, to fight their "war on terror" in ways that involved extreme cruelty and murder. They had the assistance of various corrupt, immoral or, if you prefer, simply very misguided men in the law and the judiciary.

The practices have been illegal. They may also have been strategically unwise. The photos of Americans mistreating Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib are good recruiting material for anti-U.S. terrorists. But torture also simply doesn't work, accomplishes nothing useful. Much time is given to Alfred McCoy, author of a book called The Question of Torture and a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. McCoy recounts that the CIA has been working on methods of coercion for all the decades of its existence, but their experiments have yielded nothing except lawsuits from victimized guinea pigs. Another authority, a former CIA operative, asserts that the best method to obtain information is to gain the confidence of the prisoner and convince him you can help him.

But post 9/11 "high value" prisoners were clearly tortured with anything their captors could think of--and then confessed to anything they their captors wanted. The film clarifies that psychological experiments by Donald Hobb at McGill University in the Seventies proved that sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation are the most effective means of torture. According to Hobb they can induce psychosis within 48 hours. The film shows that basically all "terrorism" suspects here and abroad have been subjected to sensory deprivation. That is what covering the ears, head, and hands does; and it was and is standard treatment to continue this for hours and days. This is more effective than pain. But effective at doing what? Breaking down the prisoner, not obtaining reliable information, or any information, for that matter.

Hence these widely used U.S. practices are not only cruel, harmful, dangerous, immoral, and illegal, but stupid and in intelligence-gathering terms, worthless.

These policies, the "extraordinary renditions," the waterboarding, the sensory deprivation, etc. don't work in practical terms. But they have a political purpose. They convince people that the U.S. is "getting tough" on its enemies. But another thing this film shows is that the wholesale captures and imprisonments are not, by and large, of actual enemies, but of people fingered for money or to distract from the actual wrongdoers, or to satisfy a desire for revenge. No system has been consistently followed. If it were, the useless prisoners or wrongly captured would be filtered out, as Dilawar ought to have been. He was innocent. And now the U.S. authorities are in a bad position. They cannot acquit even those few Guantanamo prisoners they are putting up for show trials, because to do so would reveal that they had been held for six years for no reason. That would look bad. Varieties of Orwellian terminology have been devised to describe these prisoners. The film also shows "tours" of Guantanamo and deflates the claims of guides.

One important factor is that the people in charge are a group of draft dodgers who never served in a war. Senator McCain is shown in the film as a man who opposes torture for good reason: because he experienced it during his years in a North Vietnam prison.

Another issue: America has developed a culture of guilty-as-charged, of hysterical attacks on imagined enemies. The popular jingoistic TV program 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland as a CIA agent who "saves" millions by torturing mad terrorists with ticking bombs in Times Square, is symptomatic of this mindset. A Dark Side talking head asserts no such person has ever been captured, but if he were he'd have the commitment to die rather than reveal information about his plot. Yet a survey showed after the Abu Ghraib scandal that the American public still considered torture a desirable method.

I don't know if torture never gets you useful information, though the assertion that insinuation into the confidence of a prisoner is more effective makes sense. What is clear enough from Gibney's powerful and disturbing film (which contains many images not for the squeamish) is that the torture and wrongful imprisonment and lawlessness of the U.S. indicates a country that has become very cruel and very stupid under Bush the second. For anyone unfamiliar with the details of the legal cases, the prisons, the deaths in prison, and the interrogations, this film sums it all up vividly. Interested persons should then go to other sources such as the play Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Preserve Freedom, the memoir of the unusually articulate freed Guantanamo prisoner and U.K.citizen Moazzam Begg; Michael Winerbottom's The Road to Guantanamo, and the many other related sources.

Andrew O'Hehir of recounts that at a post-screening Q&A when Gibney was asked what he hoped his film would accomplish, he said "I hope it provokes some rage."

"Well," says O'Hehir, "it worked on me."

May it work on everyone who sees it.

©2008 Chris Knipp