Just watched Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) for the first time. The film is a documentary directed by American filmmaker Alex Gibney, and produced by Eva Orner and Susannah Shipman, which won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It focuses on the murder of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, beaten to death by American soldiers while being held in extrajudicial detention at the Bagram Air Base.
It’s stylishly put together and beautifully shot with a strong structure and engaging narrative. For some reason I was expecting the film to be more focused on Dilawar so initially the presentation almost felt too stylish, too cinematic; but as the focus shifted from the innocent taxi driver to the American army & government the style started to make sense and the ironical juxtaposition of clips, of Rumsfeld especially, intercut with the brutal reality of what happened in Bagram, Abu Graib and Guantanamo did the job it set out to do with integrity, compassion and humility – more than can be said for Bush, Rumsfeld & Cheney.
The world certainly did change on 9/11 but not in the way that is normally meant, what changed was that the hawks in the CIA, Military and White House saw 9/11 as the cue to bring the covert methods of US foreign policy out of solitary confinement into the glaring light of public scrutiny. I’m delighted to say they completely misjudged the situation.
But from 2001 until the republican’s defeat last November the USA has been on an insane and brutal rampage completely out of proportion to the 9/11 attack and any subsequent threat. 3,000 died on 9/11. Since then over 3,000 coalition soldiers have died in Afghanistan & Iraq, the civilian death toll in Iraq is over 100,000, over 20,000 in Afghanistan, and throughout the world over 83,000 Muslims were abducted, extraordinarily rendered all over the world, imprisoned for years without trial and systematically tortured for months and years. Many of them died.
9/11 has exposed the USA as a tyrannical force of oppression that brutally attacks third world people’s with all the technical power of the richest nation on earth.
The evidence is also now mounting that confirms what we all knew by 2001 anyway, namely that George Bush is an idiot and Rumsfeld & Cheney are morally bankrupt.
The self-serving definitions of torture, the legalistic & anti-democratic manipulation of the US Constitution, the sneering and joking in the White House while men and women were being tortured and murdered – are all truly horrifying and Rumsfeld and Cheney smiling and spouting this evil bullshit remind me of nothing less than Himmler & Goering at the height of Nazi power. But the denial of responsibility and prosecution of the grunts from Abu Graib is perhaps the more venal crime!
Army training is specifically designed to break soldiers down so they will obey orders. The idea that the torturers of Abu Graib were mavericks acting of their own volition is frankly ludicrous anyway but Taxi To The Dark Side has uncovered all the smoking guns and they are all pointing at Rumsfeld and Cheney.
The other horrifying aspect of the film is how thought-out and systematic the torture at Guantanamo was. There is an argument that in Bagram & Abu Graib there was a lack of clarity and a sort of post-invasion hysteria. But at Guantanamo Bay, from the very beginning, sustained and systematic torture was carried out by General Miller’s command in with a chillingly industrial efficiency – which the film explicitly compares to the Nazi efficiency during the Holocaust.
To many of us the US reaction to 9/11 made little moral or even logical sense. To declare war and then ignore the Geneva Convention is logically incoherent; they needed to use the word “War”, as in “the war On terror”, to justify & intensify their attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, but soldiers in a war, from both sides, are protected by the Geneva Convention, so the White House then arbitrarily decided the people they were fighting were not soldiers, although they were fighting a war, and could be treated anyway they like. It beggars believe.
My one criticism of the film is that Gibney falls into the trap of implying that if the detainees had been guilty then the treatment might have been more justified. But surely in a civilised society we cannot justify torturing and illegally detaining the guilty – let alone the innocent.
Even if all the detainees had been active terrorists who could have been proved to be putting the USA under clear and present danger at the time of arrest, even then they would still have deserved to be treated with decency and humanity. Even then to subject them to literally sado-masochistic sexual torture would have been abhorrent.
The good news of course is that this film could get made, released and win awards in the very country it so effectively criticises. This clearly demonstrates that civil liberties and a free press still do have some meaning in the USA & the UK. And thank God for that, because we can’t thank the White House or Blair. However, to some extent the “open society” does exist and in the USA there were official investigations into the events depicted in this film in the Senate and Congress and eventually the Supreme Court intervened to rule that the Guantanamo detainees had to be given at least some pretence of a legal process.
The other good news is the work of the dedicated work of Gibney himself and journalists including Carlotta Gall and Tim Golden who pursued this story in a Country who didn’t want to hear the truth.
All too often we hear the apologists for War saying that it is pointless to keep looking back, “we are where we are”, they say, and it’s pointless and unfair to vilify those who took us into war “in good faith”. But this is simply wrong. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Blair did something profoundly wicked and in an ideal world they would face some sort of trial or war crimes tribunal. This is currently inconceivable but they must never be allowed to forget what they have done, they must never be allowed to rehabilitate their reputations. At every opportunity we must remind the world of the type of men they are.
Even in September 2001 Americans were, and are now, more in danger from crazed gun-touting fellow Americans than they are from Muslim Terrorists. But this of course is part of the problem. The American self-image of the avenging armed vigilante who does not have the law on his side but does have justice – Every western hero, Dirty Harry, Rambo, Death Wish; it’s central to the American myth. And these “can-do”, “a-man’s-gotta-do”, type characters regard all liberal values as demonstrations of weakness and lack of integrity and regard the law as a problem to be overcome in order to “do what’s right”. What they fail to recognise is that the American constitution was built on the liberal values of religious tolerance, individual freedom and equality before the law. Bush, Rumsfeld & Cheney were not defending the American way of life they were fatally undermining it in the eyes of most of the rest of the world. It really is the most appalling tragedy.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philospohical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society