erik lundegaard

Torture to Watch

Last week Patricia and I, Seattle’s fun couple, watched a couple of documentaries before Thanksgiving. The first, Alex Gibney’ s “Taxi to the Dark Side,” won the Academy Award last year, while the second, Errol Morris’ “Standard Operating Procedure,” is one of 15 docs up for the prize this year. Neither is pretty.

“Dark Side” uses the incarceration and subsequent death of an innocent Afghani taxi driver while in U.S. military custody as the starting point to examine our entire post-9/11 system of torture and humiliation — specifically at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It’s a good overview of what will surely be one of the blackest marks of the many black marks on the Bush administration. For some, of course, the mark isn’t even black, but this doc should give pause to proponents of torture, as well as to regular viewers of “24” — where the efficacy of torture in extracting accurate information is regularly dramatized.

Morris’ film is more focused and creepier. He trains his eye on Abu Ghraib, on what was done there, on the photos that were taken there, on what they say or don’t say and how they lie or don’t lie. He interviews, almost exclusively, the various “bad apples” who forced Iraqi prisoners to debase themselves. It’s beautifully shot, but claustrophobic and so sad about human nature. What people can convince themselves to do — particularly when ordered to do so. What they can convince themselves of afterwards. A few small apples were scapegoated for our unethical system, and their main defense is the Nuremberg defense: I didn’t know any bettre; I was just following orders. They also blame the photographs. They blame the evidence rather than the crime. It’s as if being scapegoated for the crime is keeping them from examining their role in the crime.

I’m not sure what happens when we stare into those faces as they justify their actions, but it’s definitely uncomfortable. Would we have done the same in their situation? Are they us? The tawdriness of the enterprise is overwhelming. Maybe it says something that the talking head who is least culpable — who was not even a guard at Abu Ghraib, but who wound up in the background of some photographs and was prosecuted based on that evidence — blames himself the most. Maybe that’s something the rest of us could begin to emulate.

Posted at 11:35 AM on Sun. Nov 30, 2008 in category Movies, Politics, Culture  
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