Taxi to the Dark Side (review)

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Inconvenient Truths

I’d be sputtering with rage, except that I’m totally exhausted from raging for the last seven years. For Taxi to the Dark Side is an infuriating film in so many ways that I can barely make myself coherent. Infuriating in good ways… well, no, it’s infuriating for reasons that should have remained in the realm of dystopic science fiction, but since things are the way they are, the only possible reaction for a thinking, aware, patriotic American — hell, for a decent human being — is to become enraged. Even if you’re already worn out. But what I mean is this: this is a movie that is infuriating because it does what it does so damn well, and because what is does is so sadly so vitally necessary, even if you wish it weren’t.
The first reason to be mad is seeing that the cultural environment in which is exists, in which it is attempting to make itself heard, is both so much a part of the dire issues it illuminates and part of why it seems like it may well be impossible to remedy them. For here we have this year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, for pete’s sake, and it’s almost impossible to find in theaters. Maybe if you’re near something like a major city you might — might — find a single arthouse showing it, if you’re willing to drive an hour to get there, but probably not. Yet even that is nothing to the fact that Taxi is the kind of exposé that used to show up on 60 Minutes or the network evening news, where millions and millions of people would be introduced to it, some of them even accidentally, and might accidentally end up being enlightened by it. But the fact that you must seek out this movie means that it is only going to be singing to a choir that is already ready to listen to what it has to say.

So, here’s the second reason: If there weren’t such a strangehold on the truth, and if our mass media — which is supposedly free of government oversight — were doing the job they are mandated, even required by the needs of a democratic society, to do, Taxi would not be news. For there is nothing but fact on offer here. No one disputes the accuracy of anything that documentarian Alex Gibney — who made the equally devastating Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room a few years back — tells us here. There is no “spin.” And yet, because the truth has been spun in the mass media, the larger response to this movie — which is honest, honorable, and properly angry at what is being done America’s name that is so antithetical to American ideals — has frequently accused it of being “liberal propaganda.” The Discovery Channel suddenly refused to air the film after aquiring the rights to do so because it was “controversial.” That’s right: the undisputed truth is controversial. This is such a bizarre inversion of anything right and truthful that it boggles the mind. What this says about where America can go from here is terrifying.

There is no disputing that Afghan taxi driver Dilawar (he had only one name), by all accounts a gentle young man with no connections whatsoever to anything beyond desperately trying to support his wife and baby by driving a taxi, was arrested in 2002 by U.S troops and sent to Bagram prison. He was guilty of nothing. He was beaten to death by American soldiers — tortured, really — because, apparently, they could. The death certificate the U.S. army coroner released for Dilawar plainly stated the cause of death as “murder.” These are facts. But this is just the beginning.

I may be sputtering with rage, but Gibney is very calm in the powerful indictment of the United States’ prosecution of the “War on Terror” that grew out of Dilawar and Bagram prison. Bagram became the blueprint for Abu Ghraib and the shocking abuses that went on there. We see photos here that were taken by the American soldiers at Abu Ghraib of their torture of the prisoners there that are sickening. (That anyone could be so stupid as to take photographs of their crimes is upsetting enough, though worse is the concept that these soldiers did not consider what they did a crime.) These were, in the vast majority, as is documented here, men, women, or children — yes, children — who had done not one single thing wrong. Gibney, relentlessly, builds and builds and builds his case, through interviews with a seemingly endless parade of military lawyers and military officers — not exactly dirty fucking hippies — who explain, calmly and rationally, how torture doesn’t work and how treating people unjustly does absolutely nothing but create enemies; with journalists who highlight the degree of secrecy around the appalling things that Americans have been doing that has nothing to do with security and everything to do with covering their asses; with ordinary Afghan and Iraqi people who are bewildered and distraught over what they’ve seen and been subjected to.

Interrogators with no training. Grunts taking the fall while their commanding officers go free. The abandonment of values that are supposedly American, of basic human decency. The Orwellian redefining of simple words: torture is “coercive interrogation techniques,” and hey, anyway, it’s not torture if we do it. How could it be? We’re Americans, dammit.

Except, that’s the awful upshot of Taxi: we are in the taxi, and it has taken us all to the dark side. Our leaders — we learn here that Donald Rumsfeld, at the very least, was fully and completely aware of everything that was going on, witnessed it with his own eyes — are the ones who disdain America and everything it once stood for. I mean, my God, they have destroyed America, Gibney makes no bones about saying: they hold in contempt even the most basic reasons for the American Revolution in the first place, that the government cannot deny anyone — not just American cititzens on American soil, but anyone — liberty without just cause, without a reason approved of by a court of law. If we’re not fighting for our principles, then what are we fighting for? Haven’t the terrorists already won, if we throw away everything that made America America in the first place?

One British attorney, working on behalf of a British Muslim rounded up and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, here decries that Cuban prison as a “PR stunt.” But you have to wonder what purpose such a stunt would serve. Because there are only three possible interpretations for the actions of the American leadership — not just as presented here, but as seen as perfectly obvious by anyone who has been paying attention for the last seven years. They are stupid, they are actually evil, or they are both stupid and evil. There is absolutely no positive PR value in anything they’ve done… except, perhaps, to the populace kept deliberately ignorant back home.

Because there is no question — again, as demonstrated here, but also as easily discernible by anyone who does not rely exclusively on Fox News for their “information” — that torture does not work. That terrorizing innocent people does not work. So they’re either too stupid to understand that, or they’re actually getting off on things like the senseless death of an innocent cab driver.

I’m not sure which is the worse explanation. Kudos to Gibney for being brave enough to highlight the horrors. I wish I felt like it would do any good.

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Wed, Mar 12, 2008 3:14am

Hi MaryAnn,

I often read something like: If we abandon civil (or even human) rights in order to fight terrorism, the terrorists already have won. I don’t think that’s true. I mean, hell, I don’t care whether the terrorists win or not; it’s us who lose, and that’s the bad thing.

Wed, Mar 12, 2008 11:16pm

Well, I think that’s obvious: of course we lose. But the value of pointing out the “the terrorists win” angle is that those who advocate the abolishment of civil and human rights in the fight against terrorism are the ones who are so rabid about not letting the terrorists win. It MUST be pointed out to these people that if “the terrorists” are, supposedly, out to destroy America, they’ve achieved that, because we’re doing it for them.

The real problem is that so many Americans have no idea what rights the Constitution guarantees them or why those rights are so important. Or what rights they’ve lost in recent years.

Thu, Mar 13, 2008 3:45am

The angle is, I guess, really a “macho” problem. You see, I’d like to point out to those people you described that one should be more concerned about losing than about the other guys winning. “Not letting the terrorists win” by ANY means sounds somewhat like a fanatic fan in a football match to me.

And now I realize why I have this image of Mr. Helpman flowing through my mind for the last few minutes …