One week after September 11, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on “Meet the Press” to describe one of the ways the rules have changed. “We have to work the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows of the intelligence world. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, to achieve our objective.” With the nation plunged into fear, the administration was able to do a little test to see just how deeply Americans treasured the Constitution. The Patriot Act famously made habeus corpus irrelevant, and this Act was not only successfully passed, but renewed, and followed by subsequent legal actions to endorse torture as official policy. Though a great deal of ink has been spilled and breath wasted on how these steps were abuses of power, the American populace remains strangely silent about how the country they knew had vanished forever.
Taxi to the Dark Side begins its examination of military use of torture in Bagram, where a young taxi driver was captured in a sweep, taken to the local prison, and beaten to death over five days while he screamed for his mother and father to help him. The commanding officer was later transferred to Abu Ghraib to apply the same techniques, and today is an instructor in an interrogation school in the US. The documentary uses interview footage and documentation to make the case that torture was not the work of a few depraved bad apples, but had the signed approval of the Secretary of Defense. Legal protection (attorney general Alberto Gonzales and the author of the ‘torture memo’ John Yoo of the Office of Legal Counsel) was provided from any prosecution for war crimes, and the orders were passed down the chain of command with a fog of ambiguity that would allow human nature to take its course. The setup is, the soldiers staffing these prisons were constantly reminded of 9/11 with jingoistic slogans, and provided a group of brown people who were labeled as terrorists. Their superiors provided the pressure, demanding results. A few of the detainees (less than 1%) provided some information that was deemed useful – the rest were guilty, and may just be one beating away from confessing their guilt. The pressure for results and the absolute power provided to get them produces a ‘force drift’, where interrogators would inevitably resort to torture in a search for intelligence that was not there. One solider ruefully noted that the few suspects that actually knew something were shipped off to Guantanamo Bay for special treatment, and the expectation remained that the rest of the detainees would follow suit. Eventually.
The techniques used include sensory deprivation, sexual assault, forced enemas, forced IV fluid administration, strip searches and forced nudity, sexual humiliation, use of attack dogs, physical beatings, homosexual playacting (no homoeroticism amongst our brave heroes here), and staged executions. It takes less than 48 hours for sensory deprivation to produce psychosis – some of the Guantanamo detainees have been there for more than four years. Lawyers have waited for years just to see their clients, and the only trials are military tribunals where there are no charges, no witnesses, no evidence, and no trial as such. As one brigadier general notes in his defense of these false courts: “They may not even know [the charges against them] but that doesn’t eliminate the opportunity they have to make a case for why if they were returned in the future, why they would not continue to pose a threat.” Just how far gone does your sense of reality have to be to realize this doesn’t make sense? Apparently it is a privilege for a prisoner to have a chance to prove they will not, someday, fight United States interests.
The general impression Americans have of these detainees is that they were captured on the battlefield, guns in hand; they would not be in prison if they were innocent. In fact, less than 7% of Guantanamo detainees were captured by coalition soldiers, the rest were turned in by Afghani and Pakistani warlords for hundreds of thousands of dollars in reward money. So if you want to take your neighbors’ poppy fields, just turn them in as terrorists, and you have some investment money to boot. To this day, detainees are referred to as enemy combatants, and those cleared of charges are NLEC, or No Longer Enemy Combatants. Guilt implied despite proof of innocence is a clear sign that our nation’s sense of justice has rectal cancer.
Abu Ghraib made public the systematic nature of torture, and though there was an outcry, public debate, and eventually the horror of a Senate hearing, very little has come of all this. The Supreme Court limited executive war powers in 2006, blocking legal arguments that the President could authorize torture. The Bush administration responded by passing a bill circumventing this by redefining torture and exonerating the administration in any future war crimes trials. Hilariously, John McCain appears in the documentary at Senate hearings, making a show of speaking truth to power in opposing torture. McCain voted for that bill when the administration threatened to discredit McCain with conservative voters. That zombie fuck showed passion for just this one issue, and he caved the moment his ambition was to be blocked.
Taxi to the Dark Side initially appears to be a righteous blast against the Bush administration for these abuses of power, because torture is about power, not intelligence gathering. Torture has been shown to be worthless for obtaining useful information. What matters is having the power to commit any act, including torture of enemies, without repercussion as the world is shaped to the view that power justifies any action. That this is contrary to traditional views of American identity is beside the point. The United States has been committing heinous acts since its birth, and considerable naivetÃ© is essential to believing otherwise. Still, the Constitution remains a unique and powerful document in world history, and is the shining example that is presented as to why the United States must be the global leader in democracy and human rights. It is hardly strange that those who thirst for power find that document so embarrassing and quaint, much like their view of the Geneva Convention.
In the end, this documentary lets those in office off the hook entirely. As one listens to the exhortations of Cheney to respond ruthlessly to any real or perceived enemy of the United States, one realizes he and the rest of the administration telegraphed their bald grasp for unlimited power rather plainly. The public cannot fault a person who takes advantage of a situation. Does one fault the hyena that dines upon a corpse, or the tapeworm that feeds upon the gut? They were opportunists, and they made an astonishing living from the sale of the Constitution and basic American principles. Those principles, of democracy, habeus corpus, human rights and decency, were not really valued in the first place given how easily they were taken away. Two buildings take a dirt nap with 3000 people and the populace is ready for infinite war and abandonment of law? The ones who allowed it to happen deserve all the credit for failing to fill the jails with the administration’s cronies, their lawyers, and anyone who saw a memo or witnessed an episode of torture and did nothing to stop it. Of course, the culpability for this failure rests with me, since I did very little to convince voters to demand impeachment, wrote no letters to protect Guantanamo Bay detainees, and pumped no bullets into the brains of Bush’s cabinet. Since I have a job and can afford to pay my bills, all is well for the time being, and that is why torture of innocent people is now a permanent part of the new American century.
At this point, it does not matter who wins the 2008 election, or any future election. Time and again, we looked upon the face of madness and decided that it wasn’t half bad.