The Pear Tree: Is Torture Ever Justified?

Late one night, Eric Stener Carlson sat down at his desk to review witness statements of torture victims. It was the late 1990s, and he was working for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia as an analyst for the sexual assault investigation team. As he paged through the testimonies of multiple murders, multiple rapes, and villages erased from the map, a half-forgotten memory from his childhood began to emerge... The rape and murder of a young girl from his home town. The suspicion authorities had used torture to resolve the crime. The feeling of satisfaction, still lingering after so many years, that justice had been done.

Then, slowly, voices from Carlson’s past parents, soldiers, torturers, priests began to fill the empty room. They accused him of hypocrisy, for having supported torture in this case but then having spent a career advocating against it. He was filled with fear that, given the circumstances, he, too, could commit torture. That night, Carlson began to write The Pear Tree.

This book takes us on a journey from the mass graves of Argentina, to the desolate slums of Peru, to the rape camps of the Former Yugoslavia. As the scenery and actors change, three elements surface again and again: The stranger we fear. The child who is kidnapped. And the torture we use to save her. It is here, at the intersection of these elements, that Carlson asks the dreadful question: "Is torture ever justified?" Lyrical and haunting, The Pear Tree is a stark exposition of torturers and victims, and the bystanders who support one side or the other.

For students of human rights, The Pear Tree offers insight into the subject of torture far beyond what texts on international law can offer. It is a window onto the world of advocacy; this world is not so much composed of zealous crusaders, as of human beings who, despite their own doubts, resolve to do justice.

Those who work against torture will find in this book an echo of their own, unspoken fears. They will also find something perhaps altogether unexpected: hope. In a confusing time, when presidents and lawyers, soldiers and common citizens advocate torture, Carlson’s voice comes across, soft and clear, like the tone of an exorcist’s bell: "I would rather die, I would rather my society died, if its survival hinged upon my need to torture anyone’s child, young or old. And I will speak out against... all the good people of the world who advocate torture for all the noble reasons or who apologize for those who do."