TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE
by Chris Knipp
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 Salon.com 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