The Pear Tree: Is Torture Ever Justified?

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9780932863454: 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."

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About the Author:

ERIC STENER CARLSON is a recognized expert in human rights and the study of torture, with many years experience working for international organizations. He has investigated mass sexual assault for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, exhumed and identified bodies of "the disappeared" in Argentina as a Fulbright scholar, and assessed prison conditions of alleged terrorists throughout Peru as a free-lance expert. His publications include I Remember Julia: Voices of the Disappeared, and articles in The Lancet, and The British Journal of Criminology. Carlson holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and an M.A. in International Affairs from Columbia University.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Tonight, I sit in front of my computer. The hum of the fan cooling the disk drive, the sound of my voice as I read each word aloud that flickers on the blue screen. Correcting. Erasing. I am the last one in the office tonight.

I have several pictures taped to the front of my desk. A photograph of my wife, Luján. Her long, dark hair, pinned up by John Lennon sunglasses, elbows back, leaning against an iron-work fence, her dark, Argentine eyes, proud Basque nose, one moment captured from our graduate school days in New York. A picture of Hemingway when he was old and beautiful, his beard full of butterflies, like Lorca said of Whitman. And a quote from the Bible; Isaiah - Jesus’ favorite book - chapter 32, verse 13 - 17: "And the work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance forever."

The security guard, uniformed-blue, walks through the hall, checking doors, making sure the tea pots are unplugged for the night. The photo-sensor beeps as he scans his id., and the door closes behind him with a "click". Quietness. Assurance. Peace.

I haven’t been sleeping well lately. I mean, some nights are better than others. But not tonight. Tonight is a staying-awake night, a staying-alert night, a night like Martin Luther had, when he sat alone with the inkwell cocked in his left arm with the Devil staring back at him from the dark corner of his room.

I work as "Expert-On-Mission" for Physicians for Human Rights at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in The Netherlands. My father has asked me several times, "What is an Expert-On-Mission? What do you do?" The short answer is - I make studies of other people’s pain.

I work for the sexual assault investigation team. Every day I walk to work past the Peace Palace built by Carnegie out of remorse for his millions made. I make my way to the first security booth, scan my id. over the photo-sensor, pass through one, two, three revolving doors. I walk up to the third floor and check my in-tray for faxes. The investigators have already dropped a pile of witness statements translated from Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian to English on my desk. I read the victim’s name on the first page, and thus the work day begins.

I analyze the rapes committed in certain detention camps, villages and schools, forests and barns, carried out by, or carried out against, Muslims, Croats and Serbs in this recent war of "ethnic cleansing". Not just rapes though, but every form of sexual assault imaginable, and, after two years of this work, I can imagine just about anything. That’s one of the reasons I can’t sleep tonight.

I’m suffering from what’s called "secondary-stress", a condition common to human rights activists. It comes from reading the testimonies I read. I add up the number of vaginal rapes and anal rapes, blow jobs, cuninlingus, analingus, and forced masturbation that I come across, circling them with pink, yellow and green hi-lighters. Then I design columns of data on Microsoft Excel and Word, with neat, intersecting rows of perpetrator names, dates of assault, numbers of women who reached the clinics in time to terminate their unwanted pregnancies, those who did not. . .etcetera.

None of what I read has happened to me. I know. But absorbing these atrocities five days a week darkens the already dark, deep water inside of me. It touches me, frightens me. No matter how many doors I shut inside, I cannot numb myself entirely from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., while I skim through the fragments of other people’s lives, which often start something like, "He was my husband’s best friend for thirty years, we used to drink coffee together. But the day the war began he broke into my house and raped my six-year-old daughter in front of me with a broken bottle. Then he slit her belly open with a hunting knife. . ."

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