I resisted watching Taxi to the Dark Side, the documentary on America's treatment of terror suspects that won this year's Academy Award as best documentary feature. The review DVD I was sent was sitting on top of my television set for a week reminding me — no, exhorting me — to look at it, but I kept avoiding it. I literally had to steel myself to finally sit down and watch, knowing how sickened I'd be by the subject matter.
The featured story was of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver, who was dead five days after he was taken into American custody at the Bagram Air Base in 2002. He was an innocent man, as it turned out, and not someone who had participated in a rocket attack on American forces as was claimed by the Afghan militiamen who turned Dilawar over. Still, the dark-haired husband and father spent his last days in an American military prison with his arms shackled to the ceiling, forced to remain standing, hooded and not allowed to sleep.
He was beaten so badly about the lower body that the coroner said his legs had been pulpified. His death was ruled a homicide.
We killed him — slowly.
The documentary, which will be shown Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Ybor Festival of the Moving Image, offers a stark description of this monstrous crime, including pictures of the prisoner isolation cages with the chains hanging from the ceiling and chilling admissions by those who joined in Dilawar's suffering.
They all said that this was what was done to suspected al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners. Dilawar might have gotten more beatings than others, but the techniques used to soften up detainees for interrogations were fairly uniform.
Alex Gibney, the film's writer and director, produced the film for his late father, a World War II Navy interrogator who is seen at the end of the documentary decrying the abandonment of the rule of law. At its most gripping, the film traces the way the abuses at Bagram migrate to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and the way officialdom tacitly and explicitly approves.
Gibney lays this nightmare of American brutality at the feet of Vice President Dick Cheney, who demanded a take-the-gloves-off policy toward detainees. And, "if Dick Cheney was the chief architect of a new policy, John Yoo was the chief draftsman," states the narration.
Yoo, now a law professor at Berkeley, gave the administration legal cover for its illegal acts. He will be a historic footnote to the story of America losing its way, as its most willing enabler. Yoo's work for the Office of Legal Counsel, where he wrote a series of legal memorandums justifying the abuse of prisoners, not only disgraced his position and his law degree but his citizenship.
The latest revelation is a newly unearthed memo from 2003 authored by Yoo that reiterates his contention that the president is not constrained by law in the treatment of prisoners, since that would trench upon the Constitution's grant of commander in chief powers.
It is an outrageous claim and one that gives monarchical powers to the president. But to give you an idea of just how extreme Yoo's views are, the documentary offers a snippet of a debate in which Yoo participated in 2005. When asked: "If the president deems that he's got to torture somebody, including crushing the testicles of the person's child, there is no law that can stop him?" Yoo responds: "I think it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do that."
Yoo's 81-page memo is a primer on how to twist the law to obtain a desired result. In cold, mind-numbing legalese, Yoo concocts a theory as to why federal laws against assault, maiming and torture, and international treaties against cruel treatment and for the protection of wartime prisoners, don't apply to captured combatants held overseas when the president has other ideas.
Yoo seems to think that as long as a torturer doesn't intend to cause intense pain or a feeling of imminent death, then even if he does, he can't be successfully prosecuted.
This kind of twisted logic metastasizes into policy authorizing enhanced interrogation methods and then into sadistic action.
America's chambers of horrors at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, graphically illuminated by the must-see Taxi to the Dark Side, weren't the result of a rogue group of soldiers. It was all by design, emanating from the very top, and signed off on by the lawyers.