Friday, February 17, 2012

Pardoning Alan Turing

Heather Cox Richardson

Last week the British House of Lords declined to pardon Alan Turing for the crime of being gay. Convicted of indecency in 1952, Turing chose chemical castration rather than a prison term. Two years later, he killed himself by ingesting cyanide. Perhaps not ironically—since such symbolism was almost certainly intentional when committed by such a brilliant individual—he administered the poison to himself in an apple.

Alan Turing is widely considered to be the father of the modern computer. He was a key figure in Britain’s World War II code breaking center at Bletchley Park, inventing a machine that could break ciphers, including the difficult German Enigma codes. After the war, he continued to work in the world of artificial intelligence. Engineers still use the Turing Test to judge a machine’s ability to show intelligent behavior.

In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a formal apology to Dr. Turing. Noting that the brilliant scientist had truly helped to turn the tide of war, Brown called it “horrifying” that he was treated “so inhumanely.” “While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him,” Brown said. “So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry. You deserved so much better.”

The formal apology was followed by an on-line petition asking British government officials to pardon Turing. By February 2012, 23,000 people had signed it. Last week, the Justice Minister declined to do as they asked. “A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turning was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence,” he explained.

Never shy about his defense of gay rights, columnist Dan Savage compared the conviction of Turing to the conviction of a Swiss man who also broke a law we now find appalling. In 1942, Jakob Spirig helped Jewish refugees from Germany cross into Switzerland, and was sent to prison for his crime. In January 2004, the Swiss government pardoned Spirig, and all other people convicted for helping refugees escaping Nazi Germany. Savage asked the House of Lords: “Did the Swiss government err when it pardoned Jakob Spirig? Or did you err by not pardoning Alan Turing?

Much though I hate to disagree with Dan Savage, who could rest on his laurels for the It Gets Better Project alone, I’m not a fan of pardoning people who have committed the crime of being human under inhumane laws. This describes Turing. He doesn’t need a pardon; the society that made him a criminal does. As the Justice Minster went on to explain: “It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd, particularly... given his outstanding contribution to the war effort…. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.”

An apology is appropriate; a pardon is not.

Some things can never be put right. Pardoning a dead victim for the crime of being hated is a gift to the present, not the past. It lets modern-day people off the hook. They can be comfortable in their own righteousness, concluding that today’s injustices have nothing to do with such right-thinking people as they are. But they do. Laws reflect a society, and the ones that turned Turing and Spirig into criminals implicated not just their homophobic or pro-Nazi fellow citizens, but all of the members of their society who accepted those laws. A pardon in a case like Turing’s is a Get Out of Jail Free card not for him, but for us.

It’s way too late to pardon Alan Turing. And it’s way too early to pardon ourselves.


L.D. Burnett said...

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

dan allosso said...

It does seem like pardoning Turing for being a victim would be a mistake. Maybe Germany should pardon the Auschwitz victims, too? Then we wouldn't have to ask ourselves how our apparently civilized grandparents were able to justify this to themselves. Or to look away.

Keith Humphreys said...

Magnificent analysis. I have highlighted your fine post here

Steven Pierce said...

Your point about the unjust law is well taken, but it does not alter the fact that Turning remains convicted of a crime. A pardon would remedy at that portion of the injustice he suffered. An apology is all very well, but we could stop compounding his injury. What's the harm?

hcr said...

Interesting point, Steven.

It seems to me the harm is in letting modern day participants feel their work is done simply by supporting such an easy thing. In my past courses, I discovered that students invariably claimed to be horrified by nineteenth-century racism, on which they blamed, for example, the Indian Removal Act. I would receive impassioned essays about how appalling the Trail of Tears was, and how THEY would never have permitted anything like that to happen. So I started to teach the Removal Act along with the Inuit Council's lawsuit against the Bush administration for destroying the environment on which their culture was based. Almost all the same students who recoiled from the Indian Removal Act would dismiss the lawsuit in disgust, insisting that it was stupid to try to stand in the way of progress. They had to be reminded that their arguments mirrored those of the proponents of Indian Removal.

Hence my stand on Turing's pardon. It will permit people today to pat themselves on the back for opposing homophobia, and then to keep quiet about continuing practices and laws that threaten today's Turings.

Now, whether it continues to harm the great man himself that he remains convicted of a crime... that, it seems to me, is a valid place for much debate. What is the relationship between man, present, memory, and history? Not entirely sure how I would come out on the question, to be honest.

John said...

A good post, though I disagree both with the conclusion and the context.

If I understand your argument correctly you contend that;

1) permitting the crime to remain emphasises its inhumanity by observing its effects (eg Alan Turing)

2) pardoning the conviction would induce us to forget the inhumanity of the crime

3) we would therefore be more likey to fail to recognise the relevant historical reasoning behind the law, and therefore be less susceptable to avoiding those errors when reasoning out analagous dilema's in modern contexts

I hope I've not misrepresented your arguments. My problem is firstly one of perception; in the context of a campaign and demands to pardon him, not to do so highlights more than just the horror of the crime, but also maintains a faint feeling of attack on homosexuality; that the crime itself is not *so* monstrous that we will not abide it on our books (sorry for the double negative...). I hints that some aspect of what he did ie going against the law (regardless of whether the law is just) lends a credence to the idea that the law as it was practiced had some basis in rationality or justice in its socio-political context.

Moreover, I propose that pardoning the law would be seen as an attack on the law and by extention the society that propogated it, the society which you say is the entity who should seek pardon.

In terms of resting on our laurels, I can't agree here either. I do not believe that because we pardon Turing history teachers are any less likely to teach the horror of his treatment, or that new computer scientists will be less intrigued to find out about his life. I certainly doubt that the Gay Rights acitivsts will drop one of its talismanic figures in proving the worth of gays in history - for one the existence of Gay History Month in the UK will not forget.

We see for example that David Cameron the Prime Minister made an election promise that he would erase the criminal records of those still living with "indecency" or sodomy convictions.

The inability to transpose the mindset of the past injustices to those of the present are unlikely to occur soon in any case when in this global situation we still have so many reminders. From Uganda, to St Petersburg, from California to the Middle East, we need keep reminders of the past injustices far less than we need to attack utterly the suggestion that such laws are permissible in any context. Even if you are right, and in doing so we pardon ourselves then this silly indulgence is worth far less than the excoriation by comparison and extension that we land on the those oppressing the Turings of today.

John said...

Correction; "Moreover, I propose that pardoning the *crime* would be seen..."