The Pear Tree: Is Torture Ever Justified?

Eric Stener Carlson, The Pear Tree: Is Torture Ever Justified? (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2006).

In The Pear Tree, Eric Stener Carlson offers a personal meditation on the subject of torture. Carlson works on the sexual assault investigation team of Physicians for Human Rights at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Since he investigates “every form of sexual assault imaginable,” he suffers workplace hazards of insomnia, nightmares, excessive grinding of his teeth at night, and a slight ringing in the ears. He approaches torture from the standpoint of his Christian faith, asserting that “…there’s something good in all of us, innate, something at the core of our humanity that tells us it’s right to care for others and wrong to harm them.”

Born in Minnesota, Carlson passed most of his childhood in St. Hugh, Tasmania, where at the age of nine, he won first prize in the Municipal Council Crime and Safety Poster Competition with a poster exhorting children not to accept rides or candy from strangers. The “stranger” or dangerous “other” soon became real to him when a small girl in his community disappeared. A retired police officer and family friend, Mr. Foster, tracked down, apprehended and, through coercion or torture conducted in private, wrested a confession from the “stranger” who had raped and killed Lisa. The community was grateful for Foster’s doing what he “had to do” in this situation, and in retrospect Carlson comprehends how he himself benefited from a feeling of safety as a result of Foster’s methods. The theme of the “stranger” whose torture is tacitly accepted by society is repeated throughout the book.

The pear tree that grew in Carlson’s garden in Tasmania, “a withered brown shaft between the garden and the fence,” becomes a central symbol in the book. From Foster, Carlson learns that pear trees are “special things” needing seven years from the time they are planted until they bloom; only if one has cut back branches, dug at roots, and been “harsh with the pear tree,” will it grow. The pear tree seems to represent a state of innocent social well-being while at the same time its growth depends on a form of violence. Carlson needs “to know whether the pear tree will bloom if we cut its branches back, if we dig at its roots… whether we do more right in the end by torturing the Strangers among us to save our child. Or whether we are somewhat less because of what Foster did, whether we are somehow damaged and can’t grow back.”

His life’s experience informs Carlson’s views on torture. As an exchange high school student in Argentina he witnessed extreme examples of misogyny, homophobia and cruelty among his schoolmates. There he first heard the ubiquitous “ticking bomb” apologia for torture from a local newspaperman, who would “…take every tooth out of his [the suspect’s] head with a pair of pliers until he told me where the bomb was.” Files of perpetrators in former Yugoslavia would later reveal “Rambo” as a favourite nickname. In the Dominican Republic, Carlson witnessed children’s gratuitous cruelty and violence to helpless animals as well as virulent racism and exaggerated nationalism which resulted in the persecution and murder of Haitian workers. Working in forensic anthropology in Argentina, he learns about torturing people “for their own good,” to cure them of the “disease” of communism, an activity in which some members of the clergy colluded. In Peru in the mid 1990s Carlson witnessed a class war manifested by the cycle of murder and reprisal enacted by both state and local terrorists. In the lawless settlement of Sensor del Mar, where“… social justice was so distant as to be a permanent impossibility,” the police committed theft and murder with impunity. Reflecting on all these instances, Carlson is led to conclude that “we are all one extended family of torturers. In this, our lineage is undeniably intertwined. Croatians, Dominicans, Australians, Argentines, Americans, Peruvians, all.”

Carlson tackles the question of “admissible torture,” wondering if one can argue “right reasons” for a kind of “just this once” torture. After listing some particularly vicious tortures, he realizes that torturers often are able to live comfortably with and benefit from the fact that they have tortured and that some people he loves might even approve of their acts. Carlson can’t, though: “ I would rather my society died, if its survival hinged upon my need to torture a child, anyone’s child. And we are all someone’s child, young or old.”

Carlson asks, “is torture ever justified?” His conclusion that it isn’t is primarily faith-based. He does not provide argumentation or conventional moral reasoning; rather he offers the reader the possibility of agreeing with his conclusion through having participated in his eloquently expressed reflections on his own experiences. However, the context is one in which the subject is often covered and debated in the media.

Most arguments in support of torture are grounded in the “ticking bomb” narrative with reference to the “stranger” or “terrorist.” In an attempt to give a humanitarian twist to the “ticking bomb” apologia, law professor, Alan Dershowitz,1 has advocated the use of torture warrants issued by judges. He argues that interrogators will torture anyway and such warrants would make them accountable. He has been roundly criticized primarily on the grounds of the inevitable dangers of that particular “slippery slope.” On the other hand, the “ticking bomb” does present us with a real dilemma when the suffering of one individual could relieve the suffering of thousands.

A more insidious view is presented in the writing of Michael Ignatieff, late of Harvard and possibly a future Prime Minister of Canada.2 He argues for what he calls a “lesser evil morality” which “may require us to take actions in defense of democracy which will stray from democracy’s own foundational commitments to dignity.” To Ignatieff the problem with torture is that it “inflicts irremediable harm on both the torturer and the prisoner.” However, he then addresses the problem of identifying justifiable exceptions and defining what forms of duress stop short of absolute degradation. His solution is simply to redefine what constitutes torture, blithely concluding that “permissible duress might include forms of sleep deprivation that do not result in harm to mental or physical health.” He also argues that “isolation and disorientation that stop short of physical or psychological abuse” are permissible. One wonders in which category Ignatieff would put the following torture experience:

The interrogation was long and nerve wracking. The repetition of questions and my exhaustion made me easy prey for their traps. A child would have laughed at the statements I made. But what did it matter. To hell with it all. Let them do what they want, I thought. I felt I was growing stupider. I felt numb. My two interrogators grew in dimension. I saw them as a couple of giants seen in a concave mirror.

Other than moral arguments, the most prominent utilitarian arguments against torture claim that the information obtained is often worthless; prisoners will say almost anything to make the torture stop. As well, torturing one’s prisoners invites the enemy to torture their military prisoners in reprisal.

We live in an environment where torture is domesticated on TV shows such as Law and Order and NYPD Blue. The police heroes bend the law by using methods of torture such as sleep deprivation, food and drink deprivation, denying use of the toilet to suspects, withholding information or lying, and obliquely threatening the safety of prisoners’ loved ones. Occasionally, exercised beyond endurance at the reticence of some “pervert,” they may even resort to physical assault. However, local police torture is enacted in the context of habeas corpus, where “mirandized” suspects can always “lawyer up,” but not for long if the currently debated “Military Commissions Act” is passed by the U.S. Senate and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Carlson’s writing has strong emotional appeal. However, he does not provide the reader with instruments of analysis towards an understanding of why some people choose to become torturers. Nor does he refute the rationalizations for torture that are offered by writers like Dershowitz and Ignatieff. Carlson would have brought his readers further had he explored connections between machismo, homophobia, racism, misogyny and the various other rationales for state torture. Since his examples are of male torturers, perhaps he could have addressed the role social constructions of masculinity have played in their character formation.

In a world where the production of instruments of torture and of torturers have become highly profitable businesses, heavily subsidized by the state and accountable to no one, there is an urgent need to offer convincing argumentation against torture. The Pear Tree gives the reader a moving account of what witnessing does to the thoughtful and passionate witness. Regrettably, it takes more than a subjective account to overcome the fear-mongering that has infected an entire society and refocused its priorities towards the ever receding goal of “winning” a “war against terrorism” whose ostensible purpose is to spread freedom throughout our planet. It seems to me that a much more rigorous refutation of torture is needed in the current political climate.

Reviewed by Greta Hofmann Nemiroff
Dawson College, Montreal

1. Alan M. Dershowitz. “Want to Torture? Get a Warrant,” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 January, 2002, p. A-19.

2. Michael Ignatieff. The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2004).

3. Mahmood Saeed, Sadam City. Tr. Ahmad Adri (London: Saqui Books, 2004), p. 117.

This entry was posted in 43, Volume 21, No. 1. Bookmark the permalink.