What could I possibly write about “Taxi to the Dark Side” that would make you decide to see it? For heaven’s sake, it’s a documentary about Guatanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and policies of torture. Not exactly the kind of thing you’re likely to pick up the next time you run to the video store. Especially now that we’ve elected a new President who promises change, why should you bother to learn about the legal crimes of an old regime?
Really, I’m not sure who is going to watch this. “Taxi to the Dark Side” is too graphic for the classroom, too unpleasant for Friday Night Popcorn viewing. Jigsaw Productions can’t be expecting much in terms of DVD sales. And it’s to bad, because this is quality journalism; it falls into the seldom watched, often talked about “You need to see this” category. I can give you all the usual reasons why you need to see this: because if you’re American, these atrocities are being committed in your name, and are affecting the way people in other parts of the world think about you. Because recognizing and understanding the plight of innocent men held illegally in prisons somehow gives meaning and importance to their suffering. Because we, as a democratic, media saturated society, need to recognize the danger of our attraction to a simple narrative that calms our fears, solves our problems, but has little to do with reality or the facts. Which, actually, is exactly why you won’t watch “Taxi to the Dark Side.” It’s easier, and pleasanter, to just rent “Tropic Thunder” instead.
“Taxi to the Dark Side” begins with the story of a 22- year old Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar, who died in Bagram Detention Center, essentially beaten to death. This case got a lot of media attention, particularly from the New York Times. Documentarian Alex Gibney uses Dilawar’s case as a springboard to explore the conditions of the military prisons under which torture has become a reality, and perhaps an expectation. Using interviews with the soldiers who were tried for the death of Dilawar, as well as archival footage of Cabinet members and interviews with legal counsel for various branches of the military, Gibney manages to shed some light on an incredibly, intentionally murky legal and military situation.
(Before you go thinking this is partisan, peacenik arm-waving, an attempt to make the Bush administration and the military look bad when all their doing is what it takes to keep this country safe, you should know this: John McCain is one of the heroes of “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Repeatedly we find him challenging Rumsfeld and Gonzalez, piercing through their politicospeak and asking the tough questions. I didn’t vote for him, but watching this documentary, I was certainly cheering for him.)
Two things become clear as “Taxi to the Dark Side” progresses: 1. An awful lot of people are being held in military prisons when the military has no reason to believe they are involved with terrorist organizations or activites, and 2. Torture is a terrible tool for gathering intelligence. Hurt a guy bad enough, and he’ll say anything to make you stop. So why do we continue? It’s expensive to keep people in prison, both in money and manpower. And if torture doesn’t yield useful information, why torture?
And this is where the underlying narrative becomes important. We, the people, are told a story, a story that is constructed to make us trust our leaders and feel safe in our beds at night. “Don’t worry,” they say, “we’re fighting the bad guys, and we’re winning.” They point to a prison full of prisoners and say, “just look at all the dangerous, evil, vile, cruel terrorists we’ve caught. Just last week we caught a guy and he told us where the other terrorists were hiding, so we bombed that place into the ground.” And we believe them, not because the facts fit, but because we need to. We need to believe that our leaders know what they’re doing. We need to believe that we’re the good guys, and that we’re winning. So damn the facts if they don’t match the narrative. We need the narrative more than we need the facts.
So why should you watch “Taxi to the Dark Side?” Because it is a cautionary tale about the contruction of a narrative by politicians and leaders that not only doesn’t match the facts, but results in the death and destruction of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people. And while the Bush Regime is gone, the power of narrative remains. I like Obama, but I’m not naïve enough to believe he isn’t capable of constructing his own false narrative, and causing an awful lot of suffering and death in the process. There’s a good reason, often forgotten, why the First Amendment is foundational to our current system of government. “Taxi to the Dark Side” demonstrates the foolishness of believing everything, or perhaps anything, that comes out of a politician’s mouth.
“No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all avenues of the truth.” — Thomas Jefferson
- if you care about speaking truth to power.
- if you are a news junkie and need to know what’s really going on.
- If you’re just looking for Friday night popcorn entertainment.
- If you’ve had enough bad news lately.
- If any criticism of government policies and/or actions in time of war constitutes, in your mind, treason.