For Americanos living abroad, Oscartime is a moment in which to touch bases with what they have left behind. Each year, my poor old commie mommy, who spent the last quarter century of her life on the shores of Andalusia, would sit up until 5 AM local time on Oscar night, surrounded by bottles of Soberano brandy and flagons of Spanish champagne and the little white envelopes that contained her choices for best actor, actress, movie, director et al right down to best best boy. Whenever her picks coincided with the Academy’s winners, she would clang on a cowbell to the intense annoyance of her neighbors and guzzle her beverages of choice until the cups were dry.
The Oscars were a time of bonding for us. In the morning, I would pick mom off the living room rug and tuck her safely into bed.
Serendipitously, I found myself slumming in California this past Oscar night. In fact, I donned my new kaffia fresh in from Baghdad and caught a taxi to “Taxi to the Dark Side” at the exact moment Alex Gibney was striding to the podium to receive his Big O down in Lotuslandia for his cinematic treatise on American Torture.
In his acceptance speech, Gibney, who had just sold “Taxi” to HBO for six figures, magnaminiously dedicated his Oscar to Dilawar, the taxi driver whose demise he documented, and his late father Frank, a U.S. Navy interrogator who had become outraged at Bush and his associates’ obscene violations of the Geneva Conventions, the so-called “rules of war.”
“Dark side,” the younger Gibney hoped, would bring light back to America.
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Given the darkness of the times, the filmmaker’s speech itself was on the “lite” side in comparison say to Michael Moore’s stormy self-promotional tirade when he won the O-Man for “Fahrenheit 9-11,” or Sacheen Littlefeather’s 1973 45-second stand-in for Brando during Wounded Knee (Littlefeather was threatened with arrest if she spoke longer – but she then went backstage and read the press a 15 page speech Brando had written for her.) Gibney reiterated his happy face litany two mornings later on Amy’s place (rush transcript available.)
“Taxi” (the Movie) is an epiphany of the American Dream. Only America can flagrantly invade another person’s country, kill and capture those who resist, detain, interrogate, and torture citizens they suspect of harboring hatred for Americans, make a movie about this war crime, and win the Oscar for it. It’s mindboggling! And you thought the American Dream was dead?
The conundrum upon which Gibney’s docu turns is where does torture begin and the rule of law end? Where in the process of conquest is the line crossed? In Gibney’s argument, it appears perfectly legal (though unfortunate) to seize those suspected of being suspects, usually of a darker hue, rip them from their families, destroy their livelihoods and their lives, and “interrogate” them unto death to extract information that “could save American lives.” How this is physically accomplished is the nub of the controversy.
For extremes, Gibney installs U.C.-Berkeley law professor John Yoo, Bush’s button-down legal hyena in the soft glow of the campus library and nicely back-lit by a stained glass window, to argue that the President as Commander-in-Chief is constitutionally mandated to crush the testicles of children to “save American lives.”
Liberals like Gibney and his pop contend the crushing of children’s testicles violates the rule of law – although threatening to do so to elicit information or just squeezing the kids’ balls might be o.k. “To save American lives.”
Such a schema implies that beating a subject to death with brass knuckles and police batons crosses the line but slapping his or head with an open hand so as not to leave marks does not. In Dilawar’s case, hanging him in chains with a black bag over his head was standard operating procedure but kicking him to death was not. Putting the hajis in orange jumpsuits, black goggles and earblocks to accomplish complete sensory deprivation is benign but filling their lungs with water might be borderline.
Playing Nirvana at maximum levels or never-ending tape loops of Obama-Clinton debates is a great way to Save American Lives so long as the torture stops short of organ failure.
In Gibney’s opus, John McCain is an American Hero who waffles when it comes to the waterboarding he may or may not have been subjected to by his interrogators. No mention is made of why the North Vietnamese felt compelled to treat him so harshly: to save North Vietnamese lives. McCain, after all, literally crushed the testicles of many Vietnamese children when he won his medals bombing the civilian population of Vietnam back into the stone age, a war crime under the Geneva protocols.
To counterbalance the detestable Yoo, Gibney introduces us to an avuncular FBI agent who posits that you only get bad intelligence from such draconian torture and its best to use psychological coercion and bribery to save American lives. Your life is over he tells a frightened detainee but maybe we can pay for your kids’ education. This seems to be the technique favored by Gibney’s interrogator dad who believed so fervently in the rule of law.
“For my friends, anything. For my enemies, the law.” (Peruvian “President” Oscar Benavides 1933-40.)
The Oscar winner also exhibits a certain sympathy for the grunts – the “bad apples” shaken from the torture tree – who almost gleefully detail how they killed Dilawar the taxi driver. The filmmaker espouses the vision that they too are victims, pond scum down at the bottom of the food chain just taking orders and trying to make points with their superiors.
There is no question that the torture parade starts with the Torquemadas at the top – Bush, Cheney, Gonzalez, Yoo, the jackals who issued the orders and winked at their underlings for their bizarre sexual escapades at Abu Ghraib, now so perversely enshrined by the Colombian sculptor Botero right there on Yoo’s campus.
But under the rule of law, everyone is complicit in this conspiracy to violate the Geneva Conventions, the so-called “rules of war”, even those who made up the rules and yes, even Botero. Just taking orders or making art out of torture is a shopworn defense. All who aid and abet these crimes should be drawn and quartered, pulled apart by horses, sodomized on national TV, or sentenced to cameo roles in Oscar-winning documentaries.
Blame for the unspeakable death of Dilawar cannot be confined to those we love to hate. Who can doubt that Obama, who also wants to bring light back to America, would order the crushing of children’s testicles to “save American lives” (which, indeed, are the only ones that count?) Hillary, political dominatrix that she is would probably delight in such an opportunity “to save American lives.”
Americans, after all, have been waterboarding the first Americans ever since the Spanish Inquisition. Torture is as American as apple pie.
From what the trades are waggling, a sequel to “Taxi To The Dark Side” is already in the works. The scenario features Alex Gibney catching a taxi back to Dilawar’s village to show the dead driver’s family his Oscar. The look on the faces of the family members is worth the price of admission.
JOHN ROSS will bash his 70th birthday at San Francisco’s Café Boheme, 24th & Mission Street Sunday March 9th from 4 to 8 PM. Be there or be cuadrado.