Disco-Reggae at Abu Ghraib: Music, the Bible and Torture

When the architects of torture assert that enhanced interrogation is strictly “by the book,” it turns out that they mean this in a more literal sense than we might have imagined: the Bible, it turns out, was used as a form of torture at Abu Ghraib.

Iraqi POW Haj Ali Shalal (“the man behind the hood”) has reported that he was forced to listen to loud and constant repetitions of Psalm 137—in the jaunty, disco-reggae rendition of Boney M’s “Rivers of Babylon.” The lyrics are taken directly from the psalm, with its poignant opening lines: “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept.”

No one has yet cried sacrilege over this detail of the still-emerging outrages of Abu Ghraib, or even really commented on it. Yet the deep ironies of this choice of music reveal much about a belief system that keeps the United States from facing torture.

America as Both Captor and Captive

When US interrogators Babylon linking Iraq and ancient Babylon, they were also tapping into a lengthy apocalyptic tradition in which Babylon becomes a mythical figure of evil; the biblical account of Babylon conquering Judah, exiling the people of Israel, and destroying the temple has long been read as part of an enduring spiritual struggle. In the United States, Babylon is often used to represent what the nation opposes.

Yet at Abu Ghraib, the allegory of “Rivers of Babylon” works uneasily, contradictorily. In the usual pattern of apocalyptic and national biblical interpretation we would expect the ancient Israelite captives to represent the United States, under threat by Babylon. But in this case, it is the Iraqi (“Babylonian”) detainees weeping by the waters of Babylon, while US soldiers are the cruel captors.

Also incongruous is the particular choice of Boney M’s hit cover of the Melodians’ original tune. With its reggae-disco beat and Jamaican origin, the song takes up Rastafarianism’s critique of Babylon as colonial power that enslaves and oppresses.

What does it mean when a country that likes to proclaim itself as beyond slavery plays a song about freedom to people it is torturing?

More disturbing still, US soldiers seemed to invoke the troubling ending of Psalm 137, which haunts any citation of this well-known psalm. The psalmist entertains a potent and disquieting revenge fantasy:

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you for what you have done to us—the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

The dream of violent role reversal allows the allegory to cut both ways: the United States is both Israel (dreaming of retribution)and Babylon (captor and oppressor).

Acceptable Empire

The surprising, yet evidently persistent, identification with Babylon at Abu Ghraib points to a conflicted (and perhaps unconscious) desire for empire. The simultaneous association of the United States with Babylon and with the Bible’s Israelite captives gives voice to a longing for dominance, but at the same time obscures it. Cruel imperialism becomes acceptable in the context of seeking freedom from mythical “captivity.”

Torture ostensibly protects the United States under siege, while in reality it proclaims empire. Such strategies for pursuing empire look more palatable, more righteous—more like national health and security.

These are the dangerous pitfalls of a widely accepted allegorical mode of biblical interpretation. This has not been the only time the Bible was read this way; the Pentagon itself used the Bible to motivate soldiers, including a reference to Iraq as Babylon. But it’s easy for contradictory truths to materialize when ancient texts are used to represent cosmic truths of good and evil that are then applied to shifting contemporary geopolitical situations. An allegorical mode of biblical interpretation can facilitate empire by producing contradictory feelings about its value.

Reticence to take full responsibility for torture fits with these ambivalent mythic associations. It is amazing to watch the US administration’s refusal to come clean on the nation’s culpability for torture. The president refuses to prosecute those responsible or even release photos; the CIA demands that interrogation records be kept secret. The Pentagon denies that the recent accusations of rape at Abu Ghraib can be documented—even though General Taguba (who conducted an inquiry on military misconduct in 2004 at the behest of Donald Rumsfeld) insists that they can. The nation hides its misdeeds in the name of national health and security.

Legal scholars have argued that prosecution for torture will succeed or fail based on belief: whether those authorizing harsh tactics believed that “enhanced interrogation techniques” contravened federal laws, whether they knew it was wrong. If they are right, the two-way mythic identification with the biblical Israel and Babylon may explain how those defending the country can believe they are patriotically righteous while allowing something the country decries.

It provides a mythological story in which this dissonance makes sense.

A desire for righteous domination, rooted in allegorical biblical myth, legitimizes a stance that allows torture and condemns it, and that speaks out against torture without prosecuting those responsible. The United States’ conflicted love and hate for empire is enabled by an allegorical identification with both exiled Israel and conquering Babylon. In this national myth, torture-by-the-book becomes both permissible and necessary. The Bible at Abu Ghraib tells us so.