Four years ago, Steps International, a humanitarian non-profit, began producing a series of documentary films called Why Democracy? Ten different films were helmed by an international cadre of independent directors, with each piece posing a question toward contemporary democracy in various global contexts. The question for the United States, embodied in the film Taxi to the Dark Side was this: Can terrorism destroy democracy?
Given the subject matter — the abduction and torture of an innocent Afghan taxi driver at Begram Air Base — and the director, Alex Gibney, who produced, co-wrote, and directed Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, it’s not hard to see where this is going. And where Gibney goes isn’t pretty; starting with Dilawar, the unassuming young cabbie who falls victim to events impossibly out of his grasp, Taxi climbs upward, slowly and inexorably, toward the origins of human cruelty. Over 100 prisoners have died under suspicious circumstances in American custody during the War on Terror, likely victims of a ghastly new rationalization of torture. Dilawar died, an autopsy would later reveal, due to hideous injuries inflicted on his legs, themselves a mere part of a protracted sequence of abuse.
Gibney then presents us with the torturers themselves, a handful of grunts who were later court-martialed, who movingly recount what they did to Dilawar and why. These aren’t the eagerly malicious monsters indulged by our imagination, but soft-spoken men who maintain they thought they were carrying out their duty against a bitter enemy. It’s easy to condemn them for the atrocity they’ve spawned, but Gibney shows us that it shouldn’t be a simple condemnation. The Geneva-skirting “interrogation” techniques used at Bagram and, later, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, humiliation, and a variety of hellish others, which were explicitly approved, if not encouraged by a bureaucratic chain leading directly into the White House. The soldiers carrying out their orders come across as cruel pawns maneuvered by gnarled hands who then offer them up as martyrs to the resultant moral outcry.
The Bush Administration, the film contends, was directly behind a series of rationalizations, wielded with obfuscatory malice, which would legalize the use of certain tortures against prisoners of war. Why? As another way of eroding the legalities of their authority. Gibney’s power in crafting the film lies in the slow and steady climb toward Bush and Rumsfeld, and the seemingly trivial changes they introduce that have murderous consequences on the ground level, echoing the bureaucracy-as-nightmare vantage of No End in Sight without its bombast. The most devastating element, other than those chilling White House sound bites of Rumsfeld’s dissembling, is the testimony of the soldiers who had to carry out their brutal tasks, and the reflection that nine out of ten normal human beings would’ve done the same in their place. It wasn’t as if right and wrong didn’t factor into their actions, it was that it somehow didn’t apply in the situation they found themselves.
Does terrorism destroy democracy? Taxi to the Dark Side seems to answer yes, but not by the face value forces the question implies. Religious zealots don’t pose the more profound threat to the United States, Gibney suggests, because in a country that takes steps to dehumanize others, democracy may be a foregone conclusion.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and books editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and will probably vote for Nader again this year, whether or not he runs.
Taxi to the Dark Side / Phillip Stephens
Film | January 18, 2008 | Comments ()