Movie review: Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

The topic of torture may seem passée. Until you remember that War on Terror has still not ended and GITMO still exists. In some respects, nothing has changed since late 2001.

Taxi to the Dark Side won Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars in 2007 and it is easy to see why. The film uses the kidnap, torture, and murder of a Pakistani taxi driver as a springboard into examining the use of torture by the United States in the War on Terror.

Dilawar, who earned a living by driving a taxi for his remote Pakistani village, disappeared in 2002. Five days later he turned up dead after having been tortured by US forces. His death certificate, which had been given to his family, listed homicide as the cause of death. Homicide at the hands of Americans. (The death certificate was in English. The family did not know the listed cause of death until a reporter read it to them.)

Dilawar had no rights, no hearing, no trial. He was considered a threat, picked up, interrogated, and tortured—to the point that his legs were described as “pulpified”. If he had lived, his legs would have needed to be amputated.

Taxi to the Dark Side proceeds to interview soldiers who were responsible for the treatment and torture of detainees at the Bagram detention center. They did not have clear rules or guidelines to follow. They did not follow field manuals. Nor the Geneva Conventions. Vague instructions trickled down from above that allowed, even encouraged, what could only be called torture. At the end of the documentary, we learn that these soldiers were eventually made scapegoats, tried, and in many cases convicted of torture. Higher-ups were never charged.

The techniques used at Bagram made their way to Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison in Iraq where similarly horrible atrocities were carried out. The documentary does not sugarcoat anything that was done. Graphic pictures and short videos show the torture.

Experts such as lawyers, military personnel, and psychologists appear in the documentary, explaining how torture came to be the norm and how the Geneva Conventions were ignored. Torture was defined however higher-ups in civilian and military leadership wanted to define it, which let them state with a straight face on camera that the US does not torture. All of the techniques that were used were never officially approved but were on lists of techniques to use that circulated among detention facilities worldwide.

Fascinating was the bit about how these techniques came to be. Decades earlier psychologists looked into the best ways to essentially break someone. In recent years, putting people in isolation has been recognized as inhumane treatment—isolation can mentally unhinge people and have lasting psychological effects. Related to extended isolation is the use of sensory deprivation. Psychologists discovered, and the US started to use, techniques of sensory deprivation to destroy people.

The use of sensory deprivation explains the use of hoods on detainees (and the use of goggles underneath these hoods) as well as mittens. The hoods, not to mention the goggles, were never about transporting prisoners safely. Without input from your senses, you start to loss contact with reality, which has profound effects on your mental health. Within a couple days, you start to hallucinate.

The basic arguments against torture are also laid out in the documentary: torture doesn’t work and it violates our American principles. Despite the evidence that torture leads to misinformation at best and the realization that torture defies basic human rights upon which our American principles are built, over a third of Americans still condone its use—even after the Abu Ghraib scandal!

That Americans would still condone torture in large numbers is shocking to me and a profoundly depressing realization. If we are fighting the War on Terror to preserve America and its principles, but doing so violates our principles, what is the point of the war? If we do not have our principles, what do we have?

Another disturbing point brought up in the documentary is that Guantanamo was touted as a place to put people that the US captured on the battlefield. But in fact, most of the people who have called Guantanamo home have been people that our allies have handed over to us, not people that we captured. By some accounts, 95% of detainees were handed over by our allies. By other accounts, this number is only 93%.

And by allies, I mean Afghani warlords and Pakistani authorities. For money. They handed over people, and we gave them money for these people no questions asked. The abuse of such a system is enormous. How many detainees have been there for years or decades because someone had a grudge against them back in Afghan (or as one person mentioned, someone wanted their poppy field and turned them in in order to gain possession of the land)?

Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, was one such person. Begg was seized in Pakistan and taken to Guantanamo Bay where he spent 20 months being tortured. Eventually the British government was able to gain his release.  Begg is interviewed throughout the documentary.

The horror is that not only is US torturing people, which goes against our principles, our military rules, and the Geneva Conventions, but the US is giving people money in exchange for detainees. It is the body count phenomena in Vietnam all over again.

Unlike in Vietnam, success in the War on Terror is not necessarily counted how many people we have killed, but how many people we have locked up. To prove that we are winning, we have to inflate the body count. Here, let us pay you to give us people whether they are involved in terrorism or not. Guilt isn’t important. Numbers are. Just like in our criminal justice system where we value people—anybody—being locked up more than administering justice and getting the right people locked up.

Experts in gathering intelligence speak in the documentary about how misleading information gathered from torture really is. Building rapport is a much more successful technique to extract legitimate information.

One intelligence expert explains how a typical rapport building session goes. The thing is, he states, the life of the person detained is over. They know it. You know it. What is important to the detained person now is negotiating with captors about the things that matter to him: his family. You offer to do things for his family, to take care of them, to give his children education…only if he cooperates. That method of intelligence gathering, the expert explains, is highly successful.

But rapport building does not make for good TV. A small point made in the documentary bears some thought. Popular culture touts not rapport building but torture as a legitimate way to extract information. The ticking time bomb scenario, where we must extract information immediately to save hundreds or thousands or millions of American lives, is a common theme. Would you justify torture if it meant saving lives? Rather a hypothetical question for a situation that has never occurred. But this scenario and the justification of torture has permeated our culture thanks to its portrayal in media and entertainment.

Ironically the use of torture is putting millions at risk rather than making them safer. The more we torture people, the more we create people opposed to the US and willing to attack the US as revenge for the torture and mistreatment that they endured. Since 2001 we have been creating future terrorists because of how we have treated people from Islamic cultures. We reap what we sow, and the chickens will come home to roost.

In the process, we are losing what we are trying to defend. America was founded on rule of law and certain freedoms. We have betrayed this and continue to do so. Without these rules and freedoms, such as habeas corpus, which states that we cannot be detained indefinitely without a hearing, what are we? How is American democracy different from a dictatorship or authoritarian regime?

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