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Taxi to the Dark Side

Updated on June 9, 2010

"Taxi to the Dark Side" pissed me off. Not because it is by any stretch of the imagination a bad movie, or because I disagreed with its message, but because it really crystallized in my mind what's wrong with the way we deal with supposed terrorists and insurgents. This is a necessary movie for our times, if one that will leave you infuriated and sickened.

"Taxi to the Dark Side" begins with a focus on an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, who, driving back to his home village with three passengers, was arrested by an Afghan militia and turned over to the US military at Bagram prison. Five days later, he was dead, a consequence of being repeatedly hit in the knee and then forced to remain standing for hours on end.

The movie then proceeds to explain how this could have happened, as well as similar offenses at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Abu Ghraib, Iraq. It depicts a world where untrained military police and undertrained military intelligence officers, given no boundaries and guidelines by their superiors, crossed the line on multiple occasions, leading to torture, humiliation, trauma, and even death. It also asks the question of why no one with a rank higher than captain has ever been prosecuted for these crimes, which break both US and international law, when there is ample evidence that generals and Bush administration officials such as Donald Rumsfeld, John Yoo, and Alberto Gonzalez were aware of the horrible things done to detainees.

The film interviews many people, including Yoo himself, as well as several of the MPs and MIs that were arrested or charged with crimes after the Bagram and Abu Ghraib, as well as lawyers, adminstration officials who attempted to stop what was going on, and even a former detainee at Bagram and Guantanamo who had since been released.

Multiple time the movie quotes generals and high up adminstration officials who claim that while what went on at these detention centers was regrettable, it was necessary to extract information from the worst of the worst. But that is shown to be a blatant lie: many of the people who have researched those who were detained has shown that the vast majority (possibly even up to 90%) were in all likelihood total innocents, turned over to the US by Afghan and Pakistani bounty hunters hungry for cash (in a demonstration of the absurdity of the situation, the movie reveals that the commander of the very militia that captured Diliwar and his passengers was later imprisoned for conducting the missile attacks Diliwar had been accused of assisting). It also shows a system where once you've been imprisoned it is nearly impossible to be released, where no meaningful sort of trial is ever conducted, and where interrogators are instructed to interrogate people they know for a fact are either innocent or have no useful information to impart (in a brief moment of levity in the film, one of the interrogators talks about how, faced with that situation, he took up his time "interrogating" prisoners by shouting gibberish at them about how they were responsible for putting preservatives and other chemicals in his cereal).

The film also deals with the question of exactly what is torture. The issue is ambiguous, more so because of the vague or contradictory memos issued by people like Gonzalez and Yoo. Experts are interviewed who say that there is a great possibility that even "acceptable" methods (sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation) can have serious consequences, or that practices that individually wouldn't count as torture could, added up together, become torture.

All in all, this is a terrifying and illuminating movie. What's even sadder is, as far as I know, although things have improved, I'm pretty sure that these issues of no accountability at the top of the command chain, unclear directives on what is and what isn't acceptable, and the difficulty of proving innocence when imprisoned, still exist in one way or another. There is no wonder it won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2007. Watch it, it is necessary to understand what's going on with this issue


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