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  Alex Gibney's ''Taxi to the Dark Side''
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Alex Gibney's "Taxi to the Dark Side"

Familiar yet essential information about American policy post-9/11

Reviewed by Chris Knipp

The widespread U.S. "interrogation methods" are not only cruel, harmful, dangerous, immoral, and illegal, but stupid and, in intelligence-gathering terms, worthless. Though they don't work in practical terms, they do have a political purpose.
FEB. 22, 2008—"Taxi to the Dark Side" doesn't contain anything wholly new; it just provides more complete detail and important clarifications, such that Guantanamo uses very much the same basic methods as Abu Ghraib, though the location is cleaner and of course wasn't formerly used by Saddam Hussein.

Dilawar, the Afghan taxi driver, was essentially beaten to death by American soldiers in the Bagram prison. He did not live long once his ill-trained though plainly-directed captors got hold of him—but his final hours were terrifying and horrible. They kicked his legs till they turned to pulp and would have had to be amputated, had he lived. A heart condition caused an embolism that went to his brain and was the cause of death, which on the official US papers given to Dilawar's family, in English so they did not know what they meant, was "homicide," but the officer in charge of the prison denied this when queried.

Alex Gibney, who is responsible previously for the documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," presents interviews with some of the American soldiers responsible for Dilawar's death. They were, of course, only following orders. Other talking heads clarify the fact that the "gloves are off" policy by U.S. authorities following 9/11/01 goes back to Dick Cheney, approved by George W. Bush, carried out with gusto by Donald Rumsfeld, and sent directly down the line to the low-ranking and inexperienced people whose behavior after the Abu Ghraib scandal emerged was claimed by authorities to be that of people on the "night shift" or "a few bad apples." This film thoroughly disproves that claim.

We know that Alberto Gonzales, Bush's smirking rubber stamp Attorney General (one chokes on the thought that such a man held such a title in this country), would not condemn the use of torture, nor would his successor agree that waterboarding was torture. The authorities made clear, inevitably, that the Geneva Conventions were not going to apply to the "war on terror." Behind all this is the fact that the U.S. administration was willing to blatantly disregard the rule of law, domestic as well as international, to fight their "war on terror" in ways that involved extreme cruelty and murder. In their doing this, they had the assistance of various corrupt or immoral or, if you prefer, simply very misguided, men of the law and the judiciary.

The practices have been illegal. They may also have been variously unwise. The photos of Americans mistreating Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib are good recruiting material for anti-U.S. terrorists. But torture also simply doesn't work, accomplishes nothing useful. Much time is given to Alfred McCoy, author of a book called The Question of Torture and a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. McCoy recounts that the CIA has been working on methods of coercion for all the decades of its existence, but their experiments have yielded nothing--but lawsuits from victimized guinea pigs. Another authority, a former CIA operative, asserts that the best method to obtain information is to gain the confidence of the prisoner and convince him you can help him.

But post 9/11 "high value" prisoners were clearly tortured with anything their captors could think of--and then confessed to anything they could think of. The film clarifies that psychological experiments by Donald Hobb at McGill University in the Seventies proved sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation are the most effective means of torture; at least according to Hobb they can induce psychosis within 48 hours. The film shows that basically all "terrorism" suspects here and abroad have been subjected to sensory deprivation. That is what covering the ears, head, and hands does; and it was and is standard treatment to continue this for hours and days. This is more effective than pain. But effective at doing what? Breaking down the prisoner, not obtaining reliable information—or any information, for that matter.

Hence the widespread U.S. policies are not only cruel, harmful, dangerous, immoral, and illegal, but stupid and, in intelligence-gathering terms, worthless.

These policies—the "extraordinary rendition," the waterboarding, the sensory deprivation, etc.—don't work in practical terms. But they have a political purpose. They convince people that the U.S. is "getting tough" on its enemies. Except that another thing this film shows is that the wholesale captures and imprisonments are not of actual enemies, by and large, but of people fingered for money or to distract from the actual wrongdoers, or to satisfy a desire for revenge.

No system has been consistently followed. If it had been, the useless prisoners or wrongly captured persons would have been filtered out, as Dilawar ought to have been. He was innocent.

And now the U.S. authorities are in a bad position. They cannot acquit even those few Guantanamo prisoners they are putting up for show trials, because to do so would reveal that they had been held for six years for no reason. That would look bad. Varieties of Orwellian terminology have been devised to describe these prisoners. The film also shows "tours" of Guantanamo and deflates the claims of guides.

One reason for all this is who's been in charge: a group of draft dodgers who never served in a war. Senator John McCain is shown in the film as a man who opposes torture for good reason: because he experienced it during his years in a North Vietnam prison.

America has developed a culture of guilty-as-charged, of hysterical attacks on imagined enemies.
Another issue: America has developed a culture of guilty-as-charged, of hysterical attacks on imagined enemies. An example: the popular jingoistic TV program "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland as a CIA agent who "saves" millions by torturing mad terrorists with ticking bombs in Times Square. A "Dark Side" talking head asserts no such a person has been captured, but if he were he'd have the commitment to die rather than reveal information about his plot. But a survey showed after the Abu Ghraib scandal that the American public still considered torture a desirable method.

I do not know if torture never gets you useful information, though the assertion that insinuation into the confidence of a prisoner is more effective makes sense. What is clear enough from Gibney's powerful and disturbing film (which contains many images not for the squeamish) is that the torture and wrongful imprisonment and lawlessness of the U.S. as a nation post-9/11 indicate a country that has become very cruel and very stupid under Bush II.

For anyone unfamiliar with the details of the legal cases, the prisons, the deaths in prison, and the interrogations, this film sums it all up vividly. Interested persons should then go to other sources, such as the informational play "Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Preserve Freedom," the memoir of the unusually articulate freed Guantanamo prisoner and U.K. citizen Moazzam Begg; Michael Winerbottom's The Road to Guantanamo and the many other related sources.

Andrew O'Hehir of recounts that at a post-screening Q&A, when Gibney was asked what he hoped his film would accomplish, he said "I hope it provokes some rage."

"Well," says O'Hehir, "it worked on me."

May it work on everyone who sees it.

©Chris Knipp 2008

For more information and writings of the author, visit

The title of the film comes from Dick Cheney's remark to Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" on September 16, 2001, saying that, to fight the war on terrorism, "We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will."

The film was first shown at Tribeca in April 2007. It is in limited U.S. release since January 18, 2008.

Copyright © 2008 The Baltimore Chronicle. All rights reserved.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on February 23, 2008.


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