Saturday, February 23, 2008

Drowning Our Integrity: Taxi To The Dark Side

Let me begin with full disclosure, which is really at the core of everything that will follow. Of the five films up for Oscars this year in the category of Best Documentary, I’ve seen only three. And so it is with a hint of shame and sincere apologies to Operation Homecoming: Writing The Wartime Experience and War/Dance that I make the following not-entirely-informed proclamation: If there’s any justice in the cinema world, Sunday night No End In Sight will win the Academy Award for Best Documentary, bringing deserved recognition to a film by Charles Ferguson that’s notable for its thorough, critical and awesomely accessible account of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq. But if instead of cinematic justice you’d like to see some real justice brought to the world, I suggest you spend Sunday night rooting for Taxi To The Dark Side.

Like An Inconvenient Truth before it, Taxi needs to be seen by as many people as possible. The subject of the film is America’s policy on torture. No, wait. Scratch that. As high-ranking members of the Administration That Can’t Leave Fast Enough have repeatedly insisted, America doesn’t torture. So I guess that makes this a documentary about the infliction of extreme pain or physical punishment on prisoners in U.S. custody. And, whaddya know! That synopsis happens to include the definition of torture. What a coincidence.

Directed, written and narrated by Alex Gibney, Taxi opens with the tale of an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar, who was arrested under suspicion of shelling U.S. troops and died a few days later at Bagram prison. The Army medical examiner ruled Dilawar’s death a homicide. The cause of death was related to blood clotting induced by the repeated implementation of supposedly non-lethal disciplinary techniques. Better put, U.S. military personnel kneed Dilawar in the legs until his limbs were, in the description of the coroner, “pulpified.” Had Dilawar survived, his legs would have required amputation.

What was Dilawar’s crime? There were two, actually. The first was being suspected of an offense he didn’t commit. The second was failing to confess to that crime or to turn over valuable information about Al Qaeda or the Taliban that he didn’t possess. In other words, Dilawar’s sins were being arrested and being innocent. For that he lost his life. And that’s tragic enough, don’t get me wrong. But the brilliant thing about Taxi is that it looks beyond Dilawar’s specific case and asks an equally important philosophical question: What has America lost?

In the least, we’ve lost perspective. The Bush Administration has thrived on “Us vs. Them” messaging that casts America as Luke Skywalker to Islamic terrorism’s Darth Vader, and yet it’s more than rhetoric to say that America’s white robes have been stained with innocent blood. Taxi proves it. It demonstrates how the pressure to produce results (in the form of confessions or other intelligence) at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay created a system that valued quantity (the number of details) instead of quality (the factuality of those details). Thus we get the 2002 case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, whose admission under waterboarding of a Saddam Hussein-Al Qaeda link was used as justification to invade Iraq, though the CIA would later rule the information bogus.

Which brings us to another topic covered in the film: the unreliability of information produced under harsh interrogation (torture). Waterboarding is the technique that draws the headlines, but Taxi makes a case that some of the more innocuous techniques may be more harmful than they seem. Loud music? Hooding? Forced standing? They don’t sound too bad, until you hear that these techniques used together could cause significant psychological trauma within 72 hours. After that, chances are slim that detainees would recall or be able to express valuable information, even if they had it. Remember the snapshot from Abu Ghraib of the hooded detainee standing on a box, wires wrapped around his hands, believing that he’ll be electrocuted if he moves? Taxi gives the impression that electrocution might actually be more humane than a combination of supposedly Geneva-approved techniques.

But according to Bush & Co, part of the problem is that the rules are so gosh darn “vague.” Really? According to the Supreme Court the following prisoner abuses qualify as war crimes: “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture … outrages upon human dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” Seems pretty straightforward to me. Vague to nonexistent would be the guidelines presented to American servicemen about what they could and couldn’t do to detainees in the effort to extract information or simply disquiet a prisoner. By establishing policy implicitly instead of explicitly, government leaders were able to see that America crossed over to the “dark side,” as Vice President Dick Chaney called it, while leaving room to slip out the back door of a PR disaster like Abu Ghraib by tossing out the “bad apples” and pleading ignorance. “It was only the night shift,” then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reasoned in typical Bush Administration anti-accountability. How’s that for supporting the troops?

In interviews with Gibney, the men directly responsible for Dilawar’s death – that is to say the knee-ers – sure don’t come across as bad apples. Instead, they seem like well-intentioned, dedicated soldiers who got stuck following immoral orders that they couldn’t refuse. The echoes of A Few Good Men’s morality play are surreal, yet this story is all too true. And that’s why you might want to root for Taxi to win an Oscar. No End In Sight is nothing less than extraordinary for the breadth and precision of its exposé, which brings clarity to a story that the national media missed or downright ignored as it was happening. But while No End In Sight has a maddening yet gratifying “told ya so” quality to it, it also arrives like a page of history that has already been turned. Taxi, on the other hand, has the ability to influence history as its being written. In a documentary full of horrific truths, the most upsetting one is this: without significant changes to our nation’s interrogation practices, Taxi may someday have a sequel.

Of course, Bush Administration defenders will tell you that if we tie the hands of our interrogators we will put our soldiers at risk, and maybe even ourselves. Then, as Taxi cleverly portrays, they’ll resort to an extreme scenario right out of 24 and ask what we’d want Jack Bauer to be able to do to a terrorist holding information about a time-bomb set to go off in Times Square. But all of that hypothesizing will overlook a key truth, as expressed by one of the film’s conservative talking heads, former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora, who notes that we shouldn’t strive to just save American lives but also to protect our principles. Watching Taxi, it’s hard to believe our government remembers what the word means anymore. Perhaps an Academy Award would help remind them.


Anonymous said...

A new book shows Saddam did support al Qaeda and the Taliban:

'Both In One Trench: Saddam's Secret Terror Documents'

Jason Bellamy said...

Anon: Well, neither I nor the movie make the argument that Saddam and Al Qaeda/Taliban were entirely without connection. The point in the case mentioned above is that waterboarding produced a false confession from a guy who –- this will shock you –- didn’t like to feel like he was drowning and was willing to tell the interrogators what they wanted to hear in order to make it stop.

Outside of that though, I will say this: even if you could prove to me today that there was a significant Saddam/Al Qaeda link, you wouldn’t convince me there was a genuine cause-effect relationship between that and the decision by our war planners to invade Iraq. "Proof" like that produced in the interrogation of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was used as justification to keep the invade-Iraq fire burning. It wasn’t the match that started the blaze.

Thanks for the comment and the link. Here at The Cooler, dissenting opinions and thoughtful debate are always welcome!

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