Alan Turing – Pardon Me?

In what way does it make sense for the state to forgive Alan Turing for…well, being himself? A summary from BBC News:

Computer pioneer and codebreaker Alan Turing has been given a posthumous royal pardon.

It addresses his 1952 conviction for homosexuality for which he was punished by being chemically castrated.

The conviction meant he lost his security clearance and had to stop the code-cracking work that had proved vital to the Allies in World War Two.

The pardon was granted under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy after a request by Justice Minister Chris Grayling.

It would seem appropriate for the state to apologise for its past actions and recognise that this is not a good way to treat other people. Making a request for the state to forgive him posthumously seems callous.

I agree with the sentiment, and by today’s standard it would seem abhorrent to treat a homosexual, or anyone else, in the way Alan Turing was treated. However, at the time he did break the law (however absurd it seems now). I can only imagine in 1952 that people saw appealing to law congruent with appealing to morality. I guess that might still be true today. Our law changes, of course, and I prefer that it does when it makes sense to do so. We must recognise the previous state of affairs and be responsible, at least in some measure, for how those decisions might have affected others. Instead of forgiving him, how about we forgive ourselves and work towards this never happening again?

As an admirer of Alan Turing’s work, it is easy to get caught up with him and his contribution to science, but I think it is a distraction in this case.

He should not get a pardon, or an apology, or an overturned sentence for being an extraordinary academic (he was) or someone who took part in crucial work for the government during World War II (which he did). It’s incredible that Turing managed to achieve any of his potential given the time he lived in. An individual pardon addresses none of the concerns of those in a similar situation without the privilege of being an internationally recognised, brilliantly keen mind. Most people are not extraordinary academics and did not do important code breaking work during World War II, but I imagine any ‘outlaws’ were caught and convicted in much the same way as Turing. While I appreciate the message that I think Ed Miliband is trying to convey, I think it misses the mark. The implication being homosexuals that were not extraordinary academics and WW2 code breakers somehow still deserve it – they were not redeemed by their extraordinary brilliance! Can we just say sorry, at least, without caveats, to everyone that had to deal with this?

When laws exist that make it illegal to be yourself, when you do no harm to others, we know that is wrong. Let’s not come off like callous idiots after the fact by forgiving someone (anyone) for the trouble of going through it. We can get on with honouring Alan Turing while we are at it.

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