‘The torture word’

IN LATE February Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The film is about the torture and murder of Dilawar, a young Afghan taxi driver, by US forces at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. In accepting his award, Gibney said: “truth is, I think my dear wife Anne was kind of hoping I’d make a romantic comedy, but honestly, after Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition that simply wasn’t possible.”

Gibney’s speech was one of the few political comments of the entire Oscars ceremony. His film follows in the footsteps of last year’s film Rendtion, a Hollywood blockbuster that, for all of its flaws, put the reality of government-backed torture on big screens around the world. “The torture question” continues to burn at the centre of US political and cultural life.

A few days before the Oscars CIA Director Michel Hayden admitted to the US congress that the CIA used “waterboarding” techniques on three Al Qaeda suspects in 2002 and 2003. Waterboarding is the practice of simulating drowning on a detainee.

A spokesman for the Bush Administration says that despite both the CIA and the Pentagon outlawing the use of waterboarding, the President could authorise its use in the future.

Hayden’s admission came just before Bush vetoed a bill that would have tied the CIA to the Army Field Manual for interrogation (which strictly prohibits the use of torture). The Intelligence Authorization Act for 2008 was designed to end the loopholes that allow torture to continue at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Bagram. It would also have eliminated the legal basis for the practice of “extraordinary rendition”-the process of shifting detainees across national borders so as to avoid legal restrictions on interrogation practices.

The Bush administration, in vetoeing the bill, continues to maintain that the practices employed at Abu Grahib and Bagram constituted abuse, but not torture.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says: “My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture … I don’t know if it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there’s been a conviction for torture. And therefore I’m not going to address the torture word.”

Dilawar’s case shows that Rumsfeld’s distinction between abuse and torture is mere semantics.

In Taxi to the Dark Side Gibney splices images of Dilawar’s badly beaten body between interviews with the Army officers responsible for Dilawar’s detention. He returns again and again to a child-like sketch of Dilawar, drawn by Reserve Military Police Sergeant Thomas V. Curtis, shackled to the roof of a cell.

Many of the ex-soldiers in Taxi to the Dark Side have been dishonourably discharged from the Army, shouldering the blame for Dilawar’s torture. But it is not the soldiers who developed the practices in question, nor is it the soldiers that exported them around the world.

Gibney shows that knowledge of torture goes all the way to the top of the Bush Administration. Senior officers in the armed forces toured Bagram and Captain Carolyn A. Wood, who was responsible for interrogations and who was later redeployed to Abu Ghraib, repeatedly outlined the procedures being used at Bagram for her superiors.

The messages from top Bush Administration figures like Rumsfeld were mixed at best. Rumsfeld continued to distinguish between “enemy prisoners of war” and “terrorists”.

It is clear from Gibney’s interviews that the low-level officers at Bagram believed they were acting in line with the policies of the Armed Forces and the Bush Administration.

Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, Gibney implies that torture is part of the very logic of the war on terror itself. It is this warped logic that Bush uses to suppress, disregard and subvert the rule of law in the name of fighting for democracy and justice. As Bush says in Taxi to the Dark Side, “one by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice”.

The torture issue has long been a thorn in the side of the Bush Administration. As early as 2006 Bush said: “No question, Guantanamo sends, you know, a signal to some of our friends-provides an excuse, for example, to say, ‘The United States is not upholding the values that they’re trying [to] encourage other countries to adhere to.'” Gibney’s film is a graphic account of the reality of the war on terror and a reminder of why the fight against it must continue.

Taxi to the Dark Side

Directed by Alex Gibney

by Ernest Price


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