For all who do evil hate the light and do not come
to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
Alex Gibney’s documentary begins with an examination of the death of an Afghan taxi driver at Bagram Air Base. Thus we have the origin of “Taxi” in the title: the rest of it sounds like it could come from Joseph Campbell or from the movie by his admirer Star Wars. Actually it is taken from a television interview given by our Vice President Dick Cheney right after 9/11, who declared that in fighting terrorists we now have to “work the dark side, spend time in the shadows, use any means at our disposal.” Just how sincerely he meant those words we see in the series of clips and interviews that follow, taking us to Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the corridors of power in Washington. We also see in all their uncensored horror the photos from Abu Ghraib, some of the prisoners humiliated by being stripped naked and photographed in full frontal nudity. There are times when it is difficult to watch or listen to what unfolds on the screen!
The taxi driver’s name was Dilawar, who on Dec.1, 2002 picked up three passengers, but before he reached their destination, he was stopped by militia men at a checkpoint. They found an electrical device in his trunk that they suspected could have been part of a rocket device that had just been launched, so they arrested and turned him over the Americans rfor questioning at Bagram Air Base, once a base for the Soviets. A few weeks later he was dead, the Army press release stating that he died of “natural causes.” However two New York Times reporters investigated and found a quite different story. Through interviews with the reporters, his family, and the five Army interrogators (who obviously have uneasy consciences) we learn of the brutal torture to which he was subjected. A later report, listing cause of death as “homicide” divulged that his injuries from beatings were so severe that had he lived his legs would have had to be amputated.
Mr. Gibney is the maker of the incisive study of corporate greed and callousness Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room, so we expect the same kind of thoroughness in this study of the dark side of our government, and we get it. He includes clips of administration officials lying about what they knew concerning the treatment of prisoners, or, as in the case of John Yoo, formerly of the Office of Legal Counsel to the President, justifying on legal and moral grounds practices such as sleep deprivation, the use of hoods, forcing detainees to stand with arms out or hands shackled above their heads, sleep deprivation, loud music blaring for hours on end, water boarding, and other demeaning tactics. There is an almost laughable attempt at semantics by the Attorney General to avoid defining “torture” at a Congressional hearing, making Bill Clinton’s dancing around a definition of “is” seem like child’s play. The five Army interrogators, none of whom had been trained or informed of the limits of their procedures, were brought to trial. But none of their superiors telling them to get results were charged. It is clear, according to the filmmaker, that the abusive treatment of detainees was not due to “a few bad apples,” but rather can be traced to the highest levels of the military and of the Defense Department and of the current administration,
The filmmaker includes interviews with FBI agents whose agency disassociated itself from the interrogation process being pursued, and he even talks with his dying father who was an interrogator of Japanese prisoners in World War II—all point out the folly of torture, that a man in great pain will say or admit to anything. The story is related about the detainee who was rendered to Egypt where, upon being water boarded, said that Iraq was training Al Quaeda members. His story was not checked out, but sent to higher ups, and eventually passed along to Collin Powell. We see a clip of him telling the story in his infamous United Nations speech justifying our impending invasion of Iraq, attributing its facts to a “senior terrorist now in custody.”
None of the story cited by Colin Powell was true. Nor were the charges against Dilawar: according to the film, the Afghan who collected the bounty for reporting him turned out to be the terrorist responsible for the rocket attack. Almost as disturbing as the terrible photos from Abu Ghraib, is the statement that U.S. forces captured just 5 to 7% of the detainees at Guantanamo. Most were reported as terrorists by bounty hunters interested in collecting the large cash awards, and thus not captured by our forces on the battlefield as claimed.
In the years ahead it is important for Americans to assess what the cost of the war on terror has been, not so much in money, but in the corrosive effect it has had on our values and morals. This Oscar-winning film can be of great assistance in the task. We once shook their heads over how the educated Germans on trial at Nuremberg could commit the atrocities with which they were charged. This film shows that under the pressure of fighting a vicious enemy Americans also can succumb to terrorist practices when policy makers travel to “the dark side.” Only when the practices come to light, it is not the people who make up the orders, but the lowly grunts who do the actual dirty work that are called to account.