On Dec. 5, 2002, a young Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar, from a picturesque rural valley near Yakubi, picked up three passengers. Soon after, all four men, including Dilawar, were detained by U.S. forces and sent to a military prison at Bagram. Five days later, Dilawar died of injuries received from his interrogators in what the army medical examiner identified later as a "homicide."
Alex Gibney's devastating investigative documentary Taxi to the Dark Side uses the circumstances of Dilawar's capture and death to examine the larger context: how, in a few short years, a handful of powerful government officials, spurred by the "global war on terror," have institutionally disregarded our nation's core values about the fair and humane treatment of prisoners caught up in this new conflict.
Much like Gibney's 2005 documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi takes an enormous amount of fluid information and delivers a cogent, devastating case of how institutions we trust, and who act in our name, went wrong.
If Enron was a road trip into the heart of financial darkness and how a complicit cultural and regulatory environment could mutate our trusted economic system, then Taxi takes a similar journey to an even darker place, where regard for human life and dignity loses all currency.
Taxi is a deeply disturbing experience; some specifics, including uncensored photos and video from the Abu Ghraib scandal, are sickening. But so too is the larger picture Gibney crafts from the murk. Despite the legalese, the nuanced definitions of "torture" and the unconvincing public denials, our government condones the horrific treatment of individuals, even while steadfastly claiming moral high ground.
Seeing is believing, and some of the cells used at Bagram trump any seen in a cheap horror thriller: These lock-ups have walls constructed entirely of concertina wire, and special ceilings to allow raised-arm shackling. It's hard to imagine that anybody could look at these depicted facilities in tandem with the myriad dehumanizing, painful and even bizarre interrogation techniques that Taxi explicates, and not define these scenarios as inhumane at best, and torture, even murder, at worst.
As Taxi unfolds, Gibney lays out how "enhanced interrogation techniques" approved for one situation migrated like an unchecked virus to other military prisons, less through official sanction than when personnel simply transferred around. Thus, detainees at Bagram, Baghdad's Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, in Cuba, became subject to similar treatment, dispelling any mitigating loophole of "isolated" incidents.
Gibney interviews a variety of interested parties, including the soldiers who oversaw Dilawar's detention; The New York Times reporters who initially reported on abuses at Bagram; personnel at the Pentagon, and at the State and Justice departments; a former detainee; academics; and attorneys. Not surprisingly, many high-level figures don't sit for interviews, but key players such as Alberto Gonzales, George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld appear in news footage. (The film takes its title in part from Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion in the week following Sept. 11 that "We also have to work through ... the dark side ... it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.")
Yet some -- including the cited architect of the administration's "torture memos," former deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo, and other proponents of "any means" -- continue to justify actions that are anathema to our national values. These include the dismissal of habeas corpus, secretive imprisonment and the use of torture. But with this tight-lipped administration, there's no clear indication of success; an absence of further attacks isn't clear proof of effective technique.
While not excusing the actions of servicemen on scene, Taxi places most of the blame higher up the ladder. In this new conflict, sprung from post-9/11 panic and stage-managed in secret from a distance, ground participants found themselves in unfamiliar assignments and under great pressure to produce results, but without clearly defined rules of engagement or specific orders.
This convenient disconnect between policy and practice provides plenty of plausible deniability for the top brass. But as Taxi points out, this failure of leadership was the ultimate disservice to the field soldier. It allowed a climate to ferment where horrific acts became routine. Lack of specific and publicly accessible guidelines also helped to maintain the obfuscation that kept the larger world disinterested or ill-informed.
So here we are now, with an unknown number of detainees, the rule of law and the war on terror all caught up in an ugly unresolved conflict -- an ongoing situation further compromised by the lack of available information about what exactly is occurring in our name. But after this eye-opening and disheartening Taxi ride, you'll have few excuses for not being thoroughly outraged.
Starts Fri., Feb. 22. Harris