Dilawar was very proud to be able to provide for his family by driving his taxi. Not as adept as his siblings with work on their farm outside of Yakubi, Afghanistan, the young man was eager to contribute to the running of the home and was happy to have found a way to do so, taking people from the country’s rural regions to its major urban centers and back again.
Life was on the upswing for this young man, and his wife and daughter but a convergence of tragic elements would cut his life short, as he was mistakenly arrested for an attack on a United States’ military base and taken to Bagram, a prison occupied by American forces where torturing prisoners is standard operating procedure.
Alex Gibney’s disturbing new film Taxi to the Dark Side won the Oscar for Best Documentary and while the value of such an award is negligible, if that sort of recognition encourages simply one person to see this film, then it could be argued that awards of this sort do serve some worthy purpose.
Taxi to the Dark Side opens tonight at Boardman’s Art Theatre.
Truth be told, Taxi is a movie that should be seen by everyone as it deals not only with human rights violations, the fostering of terrorist activity and the abuse of authority by the world’s most arrogant super power, but it very clearly points to how the United States’ war on terror will have far-reaching negative ramifications on relations between nations around the world. This film has the potential to make a global impact if it were seen on a wide-scale, primarily because its participants were those involved intimately with the abhorrent behavior at its core and the sincerity of their statements are beyond refute.
Dilawar’s story is simply the jumping-off point for an in-depth look at the justifications used at the highest levels to institute a culture of unfettered torture in today’s armed forces. A simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time turned horribly wrong for this young man.
Transporting three men, Dilawar and his passengers were stopped by a detail investigating the bombing of Fire Base Salerno, an American-run outpost. Claiming to find incriminating evidence in the trunk of the taxi, these four were quickly taken to Bagram where they were subjected to a regiment of torture applied to everyone incarcerated there. Assaulted with loud heavy metal music, threatened with guard dogs, spat on and cursed at by guards, these four were then stripped naked, questioned and forced to stay awake for 24 hours straight while being made to stand the entire time with their arms shackled over their heads and their feet fastened apart as well.
With this being the standard treatment of detainees, it’s no great surprise that the abuse aimed at them would soon escalate and spiral out of control. Told that those they were overseeing had vital information that needed to be found out in order to prevent terrorist attacks, and thus save lives, the guards at Bagram were told to use whatever means necessary to extract this information. Sensory deprivation, sexual humiliation and violent beatings were the order of the day. Bagram’s commander, Captain Carolyn Wood, tacitly approved this sort of behavior. She would later be commended for her work done at Bagram and put in charge of another detention center. Its name was Abu Ghraib.
Much like No End in Sight, another Iraqi War documentary that Gibney co-produced, Taxi’s credibility and power comes from the fact that those who recount the incidents at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, are either former guards or prisoners. Gibney shows footage of President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney pontificating about using whatever means necessary to get information from detainees then cuts to anecdotes from soldiers Damien Corsetti, Willie Brand and Glendale Walls, each of whom did time for the murder of Dilawar. As those in charge bend the law to serve their own ends, these grunts take the fall for doing what they thought they were ordered to do. That their moral compasses have been permanently skewed is the least tragic element of the film.
What makes this work an invaluable document is that Gibney succeeds in revealing how a policy of torture could be justified and put into place. He cites the opinions written by attorney John Yoo at the U.S. Department of Justice, in which he justified the use of torture on terrorists because they are not traditional soldiers, thus exempting them from protection provided by the rules of the Geneva Convention. Gibney uses a great many statistics throughout the film but perhaps the most telling is that since 2001,105 prisoners have died in detention, 37 of them homicides.
That Bush and Cheney are presented as heinous, self-serving individuals is no surprise. However, what is shocking is the rapidity with which this policy was put into place and how it met with little to no objection from the halls of Congress to the filthy floors of the prisons where it was carried out. To be sure, there are some heroes in this piece. Journalists Carolotta Gall and Tim Golden made sure that Daliwar’s fate was not forgotten and followed that up with in-depth reports on the government’s ever-changing policy while Alberto Mora, General Counsel for the U.S. Navy emerges as one of the few bureaucrat’s brave enough to stand up and ask questions about the reports of abuse that he hears about.
Unfortunately, Taxi to the Dark Side will cause only a ripple here and there of dissent. It’s message is too much to bear for most and if citizens of this country have proven anything as of late, they’d much rather live with blinders on than face the cold, hard truth.