There is a moment in Taxi to the Dark Side, Alex Gibney's new documentary about the United States military's use of torture in offshore detention facilities, when the narration stops and Kiefer Sutherland's face appears on the screen. In a scene from the TV show 24, Sutherland's heroic patriot Jack Bauer repeatedly electrocutes a suspected terrorist as he squeals in agony.
"I don't want to trample on the Constitution," Gibney said, mocking Sutherland's bravado recently in an interview with The Reeler. "I just want to save American lives!"
Gibney's impression is impeccable -- in fact, a little too spot on. It isn't just a television hero he mocks but an attitude of national apathy. In examining the torture and murder of Dilawar, an Afghan cab driver who died while in American military custody at Bagram Air Force Base, Gibney said he sought to make a point about personal responsibility and the nature of a virus that has taken over the American consciousness.
"I think part of what happens is [that] we go, sometimes, where our leaders take us," said Gibney, who earned an Oscar nomination for his 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. "What happens when the administration says: 'Look, from now on, fuck the rule of law. We're going to torture these motherfuckers until they start to talk'? "
As a narrative and metaphorical springboard, Taxi begins with Dilawar's arrest, imprisonment and death (which was later classified as a murder). Gibney focuses on commentary from the military police officers and interrogators, who were later court marshaled and found responsible for Dilawar's death. The soldiers' testimony is sympathetic, their attitudes remorseful and even confused. Yes, they beat Dilawar for two days after they knew he was innocent, but something took over in their mind: They unleashed a force that had a will of its own.
Gibney doesn't want his audience to pity the men. Yet he also argues that in light of the circumstances -- peer pressure, wartime hysteria, and ill-defined rules from their superiors (one soldier, Damien Corsetti, said he was told one thing: "Soldiers are dying, get the information;" another, Glendale Walls, was told the Geneva Conventions did not apply to his prisoners) -- the soldiers should not bear all the responsibility, either. "I think one of the things that's really interesting about this subject is that there's something that's very powerful politically about saying, 'We're going to get tough,' " said Gibney, who also features a talk-show clip of vice president Dick Cheney explaining the extreme measures required to bolster this all-new war on terrorism. "It sounds good."
Indeed, the idea that the war on terror is a special war -- one where the rules don't apply -- appalls the director, who also included commentary from his father Frank, a naval interrogator during World War II, who was outraged after learning about the treatment of contemporary POW's. "Think about the Japanese, or go back and look at some of the propaganda about the Japanese from that period," Gibney said. "They were utterly fanatical beyond reason. Also, they did such unbelievable and unheard-of things as fly suicide missions with airplanes. Well, that sounds pretty similar to al-Qaeda. [We] were also talking about how Orientals don't have the same concept of death as Westerners. All this stuff demonized the other, as if they were something new; a new threat that we had never faced before. It sounds very similar to what we're talking about now."
Nevertheless, as Gibney contends, we still maintained the moral high ground -- a sense of superiority that clearly separated us from our enemies and was lost when torture became a state sponsored practice. To Gibney, one of Taxi's most disturbing scenes comes when President Bush, in a speech to Congress, says, "One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice." Both sides of the aisle explode in applause. To Gibney, that signifies the moment when politicians no longer need to sell the idea of torture -- it's already sold.
But as far as Gibney is concerned, Taxi is not a political film. "All of us have to think about these issues and what we would do," he said. "I think in some fundamental way [Taxi] becomes personal so you can put yourself in the place of all these other people instead of looking at them as just 'bad apples.' "
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