Thursday, March 20, 2008

Empty Taxi

On December 5, 2002 an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar was brought to the Bagram prison in Afghanistan. Five days later, he was dead. He died from complications from beatings to his lower extremities. The medical examiner concluded that even if he had lived, both legs would have required amputation. His death was ruled a homicide.

How did Dilawar end up at Bagram? He was accused of transporting militants who had launched a rocket attack at an American base in Afghanistan. However, he was turned over to US custody by an Afghani militia group that was faking its support for the United States and actually kidnapping Afghani civilians and turning them over to the US armed forces on bogus charges in exchange for pay. The Afghani militia then used this money to purchase weapons with which it attacked US soldiers. (It is claimed that fewer than 10% of those in the War on Terror detained by the United States were actually captured by US soldiers or law enforcement agencies.)

More than two years later the low-ranking servicemen on duty at the time of Dilawar’s death were court-martialed. The officers who ran the Bagram prison had been transferred earlier to oversee the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Taxi to the Dark Side won the Academy Award this year for Best Documentary. I went to see it at the Tivoli Theater on Friday, March 14. Taxi was directed by Alex Gibney, who previously was nominated for Best Documentary for his film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

Taxi begins with the story of Dilawar and then broadens to consider the practices of detention and interrogation at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. The movie includes photos and videos of torture at Abu Ghraib that were not previously available to the public.

When the prisoner abuse scandals surfaced, the US Government and the Pentagon blamed these incidents on “a few bad apples.” Yet, Taxi to the Dark Side presents evidence that all of the abuses of prisoners were linked and were carried out following official policy. The movie argues that as you move up the chain of command, each more senior official carries greater responsibility and accountability. I found it absolutely convincing.

This documentary was made as the dying request of Gibney’s father, a WWII veteran and Navy interrogator who lost faith in his country after learning of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram. The movie is a punch in the soul. In its most graphic and chilling moments you cannot help but to avert your eyes.

And, when I did avert my eyes my soul was crushed even more deeply. I was sitting in a theater with only a dozen other people. I wonder how many people will bother to see this film. I have to believe it will be far less than one percent of the population of our country. That is a damn shame! In my heart of hearts I do not believe that this is a film about right or left, but about right and wrong. I believe it is a basic civic duty, a responsibility of citizenship, to attempt to be informed about the policies of our government and whether these policies uphold the basic principles of our Constitution. Alex Gibney is a great American for making this film. I am a better American for having seen it.

[On one final note, there is a theological question about human nature that this film raises. Gibney's film about Enron raises very similar questions. The question is: are we all, at our core, bad apples? I plan to ask this question in a future sermon.]