With a title like this we might expect a horror movie. At times, Alex Gibney’s hard-hitting, often stomach-churning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side does indeed resemble entertainment aimed at adolescent males looking for vicarious-brutality thrills. But it’s darker, deeper, and more unsettling than that kid stuff. This is for real.
Gibney’s film is about torture. Not the torture depicted in, say, Open City or The Battle of Algiers, in which the German Nazis or the French Foreign Legion use blowtorches to extract information. And it’s certainly not the theatrical Russian roulette games of The Deer Hunter nor the dentist’s-chair satire of Brazil. Those techniques are hopelessly outdated anyway. In Taxi to the Dark Side, US military and intelligence personnel come clean, in their way, about the systematic use of torture by American military forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo.
The taking-off point for writer-director Gibney’s investigation is the story of one Dilawar, a former peanut farmer turned taxi driver in the Afghan town of Yakubi. In 2002, after a rocket attack on US forces, Dilawar was rounded up as a suspected Taliban member and taken to the military prison in the former Afghan airbase at Bagram. He died after five days in custody. Examination of his body showed that he had been subjected to severe beatings on the legs, and had been confined in a standing position by overhead chains for an extended period. In a startling display of frankness, the official US-issued death certificate listed his cause of death as “homicide.”
From the “Bagram model,” it’s a short, quick trip down the freeway to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Former MPs, military intelligence officers, journalists, and surviving detainees step up to offer damning testimony about how much the US military establishment has learned about the uses of physical and psychological torture. No fingernails pulled out by pliers à la Syriana for these soldiers in the “war on terror.” Instead, the proper 21st-century stockade bully mixes up a cocktail of pain, humiliation, and psychological distress, the product of much CIA and Pentagon research over the years.
Sleep deprivation is one of the cornerstones, in concert with good old-fashioned brute force. Detainees were shackled in a standing position while being bombarded by non-stop rock and hip-hop turned up loud. In a new wrinkle focusing on the detainees’ perceived religious and cultural taboos, jailers sicced snarling dogs (a Middle East no-no) on kneeling prisoners and female soldiers fondled the Muslim men, most of whom had never before encountered a woman in such a shameful manner. Detainees were stripped naked and forced to simulate intercourse with other prisoners, to wear women’s lingerie, and to assume the now-iconic Abu Ghraib postures, hooded and wired for “electronic shock” (it was a trick; the wires were not connected). Meanwhile, frustrated guards delivered kidney shots and leg beatings to the uncooperative, and the medieval practice of water boarding was revived — a simulated drowning technique. It proved very effective.
A few facts and figures to chew on: Some 83,000 suspected terrorists have been detained since the US began the practice in 2002; none have been brought to trial. Only 7 percent of detainees in Afghanistan were captured by US forces; the rest were turned in by warlords for bounties. In Abu Ghraib under US military supervision, there were 105 deaths, 37 of them suicides. And finally this nugget: After the Abu Ghraib revelations, 35 percent of Americans believed torture to be acceptable.
Filmmaker Gibney, whose involvement with such anti-establishment exposés as No End in Sight, Who Killed the Electric Car?, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room could conceivably mark him for his own eventual rendition by the forces of freedom, carefully guides us up the chain of command to the policy level. At those lofty heights, far above the Lynndie Englands and their cruel pranks, we’re treated to the public rationalizing of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who warn us that in this terrifying new world we’re going to have to engage in “mean, nasty, dirty business” because that’s what our enemies have done.
It becomes clear that Cheney is the principal architect of the US policy of torture, denial of habeas corpus and other fair-trial provisions, and the shredding of the Geneva Conventions of War by lawyering the fine points of physical force. It’s all part of the 9/11 effect, the fear stampede that only now, more than six years later, is beginning to run out of gas.
Aided by such enablers as former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Boalt Hall law professor and former Justice Department legal counsel John Yoo, Cheney and Rumsfeld conducted — and still justify — their holy war on terror through a mystifying web of memos and directives, the main purpose of which is to shield the policy makers from prosecution for their war crimes. No Nuremberg trials for them. But of course the grunts are not immune, and several already have served time. Always the clown, President Bush chimes in with another of his malapropisms: “One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice.”
If there is a hopeful note amid the gloom, it’s provided by former FBI investigator and intelligence expert Jack Cloonan. Once we factor in the ongoing FBI-CIA feud, Cloonan’s advice makes the most basic sense — that instead of giving suspected Al Qaeda terrorists enemas or subjecting them to “invasion of personal space by a female,” we should try the “good cop” technique of talking to them about their objectives. The idea is that under torture, a subject always says what his torturers want to hear, regardless of the truth. The truth. Imagine that.