Monday, April 30, 2007

Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side

I was fortunate enough on Saturday night to be in the audience at the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York for a screening of Taxi to the Dark Side, the new documentary by director Alex Gibney. The film is a damning and impassioned examination of use of torture by the United States on suspected terrorists after the September 11th attacks, stretching from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to Iraq. Gibney, whose 2005 documentary on the Enron fiasco, The Smartest Guys in the Room, was nominated for an Academy Award, has constructed a viscerally powerful examination of the way the Bush administration’s use of torture, often though by no means always obscured behind wink-and-nod acceptance and convoluted legalese, has devastated that lives of many of those on the front lines of recent military actions by the United States, both in terms of the local inhabitants of conflict zones and U.S. soldiers on the ground themselves.

The thread running throughout the film’s examination of culpability is the story of an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar, seized by Afghani militiamen in December 2002 at then turned over to the U.S. military detention center at Bagram Air Base. Five days later, after being hung from a cage in chains, kept awake for days at a time and kicked until a medical examiner later described his legs as having been “pulpified,” he was dead.

The film takes its title from comments that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney made to television host Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press on September 16, 2001. Asked what kind of response the United States was planning to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania, Cheney answered as follows:

We also have to work sort of the dark side, if you will. We're going 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 discussions, 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.

What makes Gibney’s film so much more powerful and effective than many other recent ventures in political documentary cinema (which probably reached its nadir with Swiss director Nicolas Rossier’s smug, clueless and dilettantish attempt to whitewash Haiti’s recent political history) is the fact that Gibney never condescends to his subjects, whether they be humble Afghan farmers or the working-class military grunts who administered the beatings to Dilawar that eventually killed him. He does not excuse the actions of anyone, but he does glean insight into how a system rotten to the core makes brutal, criminal deaths such as that which happened to Dilawar not only possible but inevitable and how, while the low-level soldiers who implement policy will be held accountable in the event of public outcry, the criminals in suits and offices who wrote the policy have yet not been. The soldiers themselves, even those who administered the fatal beatings, appear quietly eloquent and terribly conflicted over what they have been party to.

“The main reason I did this film is that I wanted the truth to be told,” said one of the soldiers stationed at Bagram at the time, a hulking fellow named Damien Corsetti, who was at Saturday night’s screening. Corsetti was charged with dereliction of duty, maltreatment, assault and performing an indecent act with another person, and was later found not guilty of all charges. “The prisoners need their rights restored and we them an apology for what we did to them.”

And what of the commanders of men like Corsetti? Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld enjoys a quiet retirement, having left the Bush administration last year. His former deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, is currently clinging with his fingernails to his job as head of the World Bank, awash in scandal. John Yoo, deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice from 2001 to 2003, who co-authored a February 2002 memo advising that the U.S. military had no obligation to comply with international laws in the handling of detainees in the war on terrorism, is now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. Perhaps Yoo’s most memorable commentary on the whole torture saga came in a December 2005 debate with Doug Cassel, director of Notre Dame Law School's Center for Civil and Human Rights. Asked by Cassel whether "if the president deems that he's got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person's child, there is no law that can stop him?"

"No treaty," Yoo responded, and going on to say "I think it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do that."

Even more recently, who can forget the words of U.S. president George W. Bush fhimself from a press conference in September of last year, when he declared that, when the U.S. government captured the Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah “the CIA used an alternative set of procedures” to question him.

“These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations.” Bush went on. “The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used -- I think you understand why -- if I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary.”

One month later, Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006, a piece of legislation which, though specifically barring acts such as murder and rape and "cruel and inhuman" treatment, gave the green light for, among other things, withholding evidence from defendants, denying defendants the right to file habeas corpus petitions, established military tribunals for terror suspects, retained the right to send detainees to secret prisons abroad and gave immunity to U.S. government agents for acts regarding their interrogation practices. The Act also broadened the definition of “enemy combatant” to include anyone who offered “material support” to a person or persons engaged in hostilities against the U.S., enabling them to be held indefinitely in military detention regardless of whether or not they took any active role in any hostilities.

Tomorrow, May 1st, organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights will be holding a Restore Habeus Day, to pressure lawmakers to restore the ability to file habeas corpus petitions to all prisoners in U.S. custody. Write or call your local congressperson and let them know that there should be no more Dilawars.


Anonymous said...

I am a 45 year old American woman of Latin/European descent. I never in my life condoned torture toward anything living. But somehow, having a sibling endure torture in the hands of terrorists, that makes what Americans define as torture, a walk in the park..your views seem to shift a bit. Why doesn't Mr Gibney produce a documentary on how Our soldiers are tortured by foreign soldiers? Then again I suppose that wouldn't be so sensational.

Michael Deibert said...

Torture that ends in death is "a walk in the park?" I’m sorry, but I don’t think you’re making a coherent point here, at least not one that I can discern.