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'Taxi to the Dark Side'

A nation betrayed, a nation's conscience stained

by Eric Mink

Dilawar was 22 when he was killed. He left behind a wife and a 2-year-old daughter, as well as brothers, a father and the friends and neighbors who had watched him grow into a young man in the small peanut-farming village of Yakubi.

Yakubi sits at latitude 33.4608 degrees north, longitude 69.99 degrees east, in a high valley in mountainous eastern Afghanistan. If you type those coordinates into a Google Maps search, you can zoom in and out of satellite photos confirming that Yakubi is in the middle of nowhere.

Lacking a knack for farming, Dilawar - it was the only name he bore - started driving a taxi, a used Toyota his family bought him. He died on Dec. 10, 2002, hanging from his wrists from a wire-mesh ceiling, his arms spread above him, his head fallen forward and to the side, his feet barely touching the ground. He was alone.

The official death certificate for Dilawar, signed by coroner Dr. Elizabeth A. Rouse, listed the "mode of death" as "homicide." The cause was "blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease." More descriptively, Dilawar's legs had been hit repeatedly, hundreds of times, until the tissues inside had broken down and turned to pulp. Internal blood clots then had broken free, traveled to his heart, lodged in a partially blocked artery and stopped the flow of blood.

Dilawar died in the custody of the U.S. Army at Bagram Collection Point, a prison and interrogation facility about 30 miles north of Kabul. He had been there a little less than five days. Dilawar had done nothing to merit detention and knew nothing that merited interrogation. He was beaten to death by the United States of America.

Dilawar's story serves as the moral center of "Taxi to the Dark Side," a non-fiction film that opens at the Tivoli Theatre in St. Louis on Feb. 22. That is two days before the broadcast of the 80th Academy Awards in which "Taxi" is a nominee for best documentary feature.

Written and directed by Alex Gibney, "Taxi" is meticulously photographed, edited and scored. As filmmaking, it is as artful as it is emotionally involving.

Its facts, however, are not revelatory. News of Dilawar's death at Bagram and its official classification as a homicide first appeared in a March 2003 story, datelined Yakubi, by New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall. It took two more years of reporting by her stateside colleague Tim Golden, with assistance from Gall and other reporters, to unearth the horrific details of Dilawar's treatment as recounted in a 2,000-page secret criminal investigative report by the Army.

Golden's extraordinary stories were published in May 2005. They explained that local operatives of an Afghan warlord who had shelled a U.S. base had shifted suspicion, falsely, to Dilawar and three passengers in his taxi. American forces fell for it and took the men into custody. The three innocent passengers eventually were shipped to the prison at Guantanamo, where they languished for years before being sent home. Dilawar was taken to Bagram.

Yet "Taxi to the Dark Side" can not be written off as old news. With the outrage of Dilawar's torture and death as its driving narrative force, "Taxi" gathers disparate threads and weaves them into a sharp-edged picture of how far from our core beliefs our country has veered in the last seven years.

The film is methodical and relentless. It covers President Bush's declaration - later invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court - that prisoners held by American forces are not necessarily covered by the Geneva Conventions. It shows Vice President Cheney on "Meet the Press" shortly after 9/11 telling host Tim Russert, in effect, that battling terrorists will require U.S. intelligence forces to adopt their tactics, to go to the "dark side."

"Taxi to the Dark Side" recounts the creation of the Justice Department's infamous torture memo of August 2002 - withdrawn in 2004, then secretly redrafted in 2005 - redefining the term to permit almost any technique. It includes the December 2002 authorization of extreme interrogation methods - later rescinded after protests from military lawyers - by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and it points out that some of those methods were used at Bagram on Dilawar and many others.

And by no means does the film overlook the related prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the arbitrary denial of basic legal rights to prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, the latter now under a second review by the Supreme Court.

Adding to the film's force are on-camera interviews with many key players, including former military and government officials, civilian lawyers who have been drawn into various aspects of the story, Times reporters Gall and Golden and, most chillingly, some of the U.S. soldiers who beat Dilawar.

Last summer, a former commandant of the U.S Marine Corps and a former lawyer who served in the White House of President Reagan wrote an oped piece for the Washington Post denouncing an executive order issued by Bush. The order claims to interpret the Geneva Conventions in ways that permit extreme and abusive treatment of prisoners by the CIA. The authors wrote that Bush's order "compromised our national honor and . . . may well promote the commission of war crimes by Americans."

The authors did not point out that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 includes provisions that attempt to immunize American officials - retroactively - from responsibility for war crimes committed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

"Taxi to the Dark Side" does not rant. It does not screech. Its tone is quietly authoritative and, in its treatment of Dilawar and his captors, elegiac. It addresses the tragedy of Dilawar's senseless death, but it also finds some measure of understanding for soldiers caught up in the whirlwind of a chaotic war that has been mismanaged and manipulated by the military and civilian chain of command above them.

But the film's larger point is that there is tragedy here for all Americans. The leaders to whom we turned after 9/11 for protection, reassurance and wisdom turned out to be frightened little men and women who had no faith in the enduring strength of American principles. They betrayed our principles and they betrayed us. History will record their stewardship as a stain on the nation's conscience.

--Eric Mink

Copyright © 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch L.L.C.

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