Lost in the Movies: Taxi to the Dark Side

Taxi to the Dark Side

On December 5, 2002, an Afghan taxi driver picked up several passengers in the small city of Khost. The driver's name was Dilawar and he was a slight man (though 5'9," he supposedly weighed only 122 lbs). He was young, only 22 years old, and had a family in Yakubi, a small village, where he agreed to take the three men. Passing an American base which had earlier been rocketed, Dilawar's car was stopped by Afghan guerrillas guarding the base. Finding an electric stabilizer in the trunk of his car - which Dilawar claimed not to know about - he was turned over to the Americans and held in Bagram Collection Point, where he was interrogated as a suspected terrorist. On December 10, 2002, he was declared dead. He was the second prisoner to die at Bagram within a few weeks.

In some ways, Taxi to the Dark Side is the darkest film I've reviewed in this series. The scope of the film's violence doesn't approach a fraction of the Darfur genocide, the film's message does not proclaim the doom of entire globe - like the energy and environmental docs, and the interrogators in this film are not as ruthlessly bloodthirsty as the minions of Al Qaeda. But Taxi to the Dark Side unveils a cancer at the heart of America, a festering tumor which will sicken most citizens of the country. That there are complications to this issue only makes it darker, more disturbing. Taxi to the Dark Side is about Americans who torture, and more damningly, an America that tortures.

To say that the majority of actions described onscreen are not torture would suggest that psychological torment is not on the same level as physical torment. Anyone who has experienced the slightest modicum of the former, or who has an even nominally active imagination, will realize this is untrue. I can't say why exactly, but I was most disturbed by the interview with a social scientist who describes how his subjects began to lose their minds in experiments with sensory deprivation. We see footage of someone clothed head to toe, in padded feet, head completely enclosed, on a treadmill (footage from an experiment). This is the stuff of nightmares - the complete and utter loss of any center to one's existence - to be thrown kicking and screaming into the ether of baseless consciousness, unremitting assault on and depletion of the senses.

Taxi to the Dark Side, which won the Oscar last year, suggests its psychological darkness with an exceptionally dark formal palette. On the obvious end, this includes shadowy photography and inky backgrounds. But it also includes an occasionally jagged editing style - one which punches through a more restrained, subdued aesthetic at key moments to jar the viewer out of complacency - and creeping, foreboding, and suddenly violent music and sound effects, which achieve the same result. That this is only the most incremental suggestion of what the prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gitmo experienced only heightens the discomfort - it opens a space for our imagination to leap into the abyss.

Startling then, the juxtaposition of those in Washington who justified these methods, the often guilty American soldiers who enforced them (and were then cut loose as a "bad apples"), and the prisoners who experienced them. I was struck more than ever by the thought that those at the pinnacle of power may not even understand the ramifications of their actions. There's almost a tendency to assume that the fear, the dread, the shame, the anger that encompasses those at the bottom of the pyramid is somehow understood by those at the top - when in fact there's no reason for this to be true. From a simple, almost thoughtless action, the jotting down of some comments, the typing of a memo from behind a comfortable Washington desk, thousands of people can suffer - and the depth of their experience has no correspondence at its root. It's like the idea of the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon halfway around the world; look at the faces of John Yoo and Alberto Gonzalez and tell me that these flat, smug, smarmy individuals understand one iota of what they have enabled or promoted.

It was Dick Cheney who spoke of "the dark side" in the first place, referring to the metaphorical places that intelligence-gathers must go to in the War on Terror, and I must confess the man remains a mystery to me. Whereas Yoo and Gonzalez appear too glib to understand torture as anything but an abstraction - and too arrogant to comprehend the limits of their own knowledge, there is something about Cheney's demeanor and terminology that suggests he does understand the power he wields - indeed relishes it. But this is all projection and assumption - he's a very difficult read. At the same time one could essentially say that for at least the period from 2002 to 2006 Dick Cheney was the most powerful man in America, so these questions are worth considering.

To be fair, the knee-jerk impulse that extreme measures are necessary in extreme times is understandable. But the movie does its best to demolish these assumptions, pointing out that more information is gleaned through other means, and that the information torture provides is often inaccurate - prisoners will say anything to stop the treatment. It also rejects the "ticking-time bomb" scenario which shows like "24" are so fond of, and which has been used to justify torture in public discourse. And, as I have pointed out, many people able to understand physical pain somehow dismiss psychological torment as acceptable and not torture. Yet this is, in a sense, a moot point. At what point does psychological torture shift into physical?

In one of the movie's most harrowing passages, Gitmo interrogators, hearing through the grapevine from Washington that "the gloves are off," run the gamut of techniques to break down their prisoner. Some of these appear almost humorous: they give him a birthday hat and sing him songs around a cupcake with a candle. Increasingly they slide into discomfort: a female interrogator flirts with the prisoner, whispers obscenities in his ear. Almost imperceptibly these provocations slide into physical interactions: the interrogator straddles him, the prisoner is forced to wear lingerie. Soon they have forced IVs into the prisoner's arm until he has peed himself, and by the end of the session the prisoner must be rushed to hospital facilities as he experiences a seizure and nearly dies.

As for Dilawar, his abuse was almost entirely physical, with all the concurrent psychological duress one would expect. But he did not die from psychological wounds. Wikipedia, via the Guardian, describes his treatment under the heading "Torture":

A black hood pulled over his head limiting his ability to breathe
Knee strikes to the abdomen
Over 100 peroneal (a nerve behind the kneecap) strikes
Shoved against a wall
Pulled by his beard
His bare feet stepped on
Kicks to the groin
Chained to the ceiling for extended hours, depriving him of sleep
Slammed his chest into a table front
There's also another problem with these justifications. Some of those who were tortured were known terrorists and our repulsion with their treatment is for general humanitarian (and existentialist - what does it say about us?) reasons, not out of sympathy for those individuals. But what of those who are innocent? Under normal conditions, any unsentenced prisoner would be innocent until proven guilty, and if the detainees were in fact prisoners of war, they would be covered by the Geneva Convention. The Bush Administration denies both. Surely, technicalities aside, these men would not have been arrested, interrogated, and abused without probable cause?

Here's what we know about Dilawar and his three passengers. After he died, they were sent to Guantanamo Bay. Here's the New York Times:

"The three passengers in Mr. Dilawar's taxi were sent home from Guantánamo in March 2004, 15 months after their capture, with letters saying they posed 'no threat' to American forces."
Why is this? The Times again:
"In February [that's 2003, not 2004, i.e. a full year before the three passengers were returned to Afghanistan], an American military official disclosed that the Afghan guerrilla commander whose men had arrested Mr. Dilawar and his passengers had himself been detained. The commander, Jan Baz Khan, was suspected of attacking Camp Salerno himself and then turning over innocent 'suspects' to the Americans in a ploy to win their trust, the military official said."
And, as a coda to the details of Dilawar's torture and death, we have this:
"It would be many months before Army investigators learned that most of the interrogators had in fact believed Mr. Dilawar to be an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the American base at the wrong time."
And finally, Dick Cheney:
"We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we're going to be successful. That's the world these folks operate in, and so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective...It is a mean, nasty, dangerous dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena. I'm convinced we can do it; we can do it successfully. But we need to make certain that we have not tied the hands, if you will, of our intelligence communities in terms of accomplishing their mission."
Aside from the fact that it is apparently our military, not just the intelligence communities, which have now trod on the dark side, we can feel justified in quoting the administration on this matter:

Mission accomplished.


Jason Bellamy said...

From a simple, almost thoughtless action, the jotting down of some comments, the typing of a memo from behind a comfortable Washington desk, thousands of people can suffer - and the depth of their experience has no correspondence at its root. It's like the idea of the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon halfway around the world; look at the faces of John Yoo and Alberto Gonzalez and tell me that these flat, smug, smarmy individuals understand one iota of what they have enabled or promoted.

Amen. Since Donald Rumsfeld always scoffed at the notion that forced standing was any kind of torture by noting that he stood at his desk all day, I always wished that Rumsfeld, Yoo and the rest would be subject to just two days of the stuff that many prisoners endured for weeks, months and longer -- many of them without officially being charged with any crimes. Tragic.

"Taxi," with its excellent examination of the mental brutality of sensory deprivation and stress, should forever be a companion piece with "Standard Operating Procedure," which does an excellent job of detailing how so many things that look like prisoner abuse aren't ... under the letter of the law, that is.

Another good read. Thanks again!

Joel Bocko said...

I haven't yet seen Standard Operating Procedure. Is it more of a broad overlook of the past 5 years, or does it have specific focus like Taxi? Both approaches are useful - actually I expected Taxi to focus only on the one incident, and didn't realize it would use that as a viewpoint on the entire policy, which I thought was wise.

Jason Bellamy said...

"SOP" is far more focused than "Taxi." And that can be a good thing, too. But when it was finished, I wished that all the people in the theater had first seen "Taxi" and its excellent analysis of the suffering that results from seemingly innocuous acts (relatively speaking, of course).

Joel Bocko said...

So does SOP deal more or less exclusively with the decision-making end?

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