Tonight’s installment of the 9/11 Film Series was Taxi to the Dark Side, a documentary about the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by the United States.
I selected and organized the films in this series based on three questions: What happened on 9/11? What did we do in response? And what did that response do to us? This series began with the terror of the 9/11 attack as recreated in United 93 and the series continued with Osama, which dramatized the oppression of Afghanistan’s population by the Taliban. The documentary Restrepo focused on American soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Within the design of this series, that film begins to answer the second question—What did we do?—as the film documents soldiers engaging in firefights with the Taliban and their allies but also interacting with the local Afghan elders. Taxi to the Dark Side addresses that issue as well but it also starts to broach the final question: What did our response do to us?
In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” This could very well be the thesis of the film.
There is a key image presented early on in Taxi to the Dark Side that sets up everything that that is to follow. The voice over explains that Abu Ghraib prison was notorious under Saddam Hussein’s regime as a place for torture and the disposal of political enemies. This information is presented simultaneously with the image of a mural inside the prison depicting Saddam. The former Iraqi leader’s face has been scratched off the wall and all that remains is his general visage. The mural looks very much like the stand-ups of famous characters often seen at theme parks and tourist traps, in which the head has been cut out and visitors stick their own faces inside for a photo. Later, as Taxi to the Dark Side features pictures of abused prisoners and American soldiers posing with them as though in a petting zoo or a frat party, the parallel is clear. Americans entered an atmosphere of abuse and became the new face of oppression.
Taxi the Dark Side establishes a connection between the brutality in these prisons and the action-adventure stories of 24 and similar programs. Blaming the media is an easy excuse and it is ridiculous to suggest that the adventures of Jack Bauer directly or unilaterally led to the activities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. But the repetition of images, namely the ticking bomb scenario and the use of pain to extract information, reinforced the idea that torture was in some way excusable or acceptable if the ends justified the means. This figures into the broader way 9/11 has been conceived and characterized in the popular imagination.
9/11 is generally viewed a freak incident without context or precedent, an attack on an innocent America by a group of evil thugs. Most film adaptations of the attack hold up this image, at least partly. In United 93, the passengers aboard the flight are innocents who act heroically in the face of fear. Similarly, Osama characterizes the Taliban as irredeemably corrupt. While this may be true, this characterization sets up a good and evil binary. And that binary grants America and our allies the moral high ground and a monopoly on goodness.
With the trauma of 9/11 still aching in our hearts and operating under the supposition of inherent virtue, America marched blindly toward a moral precipice. As one of the guards notes in the documentary, they were encouraged to view the prisoners as less than human. And when the prisoners were believed to be evil, inhuman terrorists who were (in the minds of the guards and the American public) at least tangentially connected to 9/11, it did not matter what was done to them. In this situation, good people are capable of the greatest evil because their moral compass is turned off.
What is probably most important to take from Taxi the Dark Side, which will haunt this country for some time, is what it reveals about how our response to 9/11 affected us politically and militarily but also morally. After watching the abyss of horrors of United 93 and Osama, that abyss begins to stare back at us in Taxi the Dark Side.