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For great justice

Scientists Petition to Grant War Hero, Math Genius Alan Turing, Convicted of Homosexuality, An Official Pardon

Stephen Hawking and other notable scientists have asked the British government to grant an official posthumous pardon to Alan Turing, the mathematician and code-breaker whose contributions to the Allied victory in World War II were followed up by a conviction for homosexuality. Turing was given the choice between imprisonment and a hormonal treatment better known as “chemical castration,” and after a year of enduring the latter he committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide.

Though then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown officially apologized on behalf of the British government for Turing’s treatment back in 2009, Turing’s “crime” has never been pardoned. Writes Hawking and ten other signatories (among them the delightfully named Baroness Trumpington, who worked for Turing during WWII), “successive governments seem incapable of forgiving his conviction for the then crime of being a homosexual. We urge the Prime Minister to exercise his authority and formally forgive the iconic British hero.”

There has been some pushback to this suggestion; a previous request to formally pardon Turing was denied because, to quote one Lord McNally, Turing “was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence.” Which, OK, that’s true. But it’s also semantics. If the government wanted to pardon Turing, they easily could.

Some people see the idea of a posthumous pardon as pointless. He’s already dead, it’s not like the pardon can help him! It’s a waste of time and resources. I don’t agree with that for several reasons, but the main one is that governments are always wasting time and resources—maybe it’s overly cynical of me, but that’s what they do—so what’s so awful about doing it in a way that sends a good message?

Writes the Telegraph,

Lord Grade, who drafted the letter, said he hoped the Prime Minister would use his own authority to pardon Turing, claiming his “brutal” treatment was “something we as a country should be ashamed of”.

He claimed ministers had so far avoided pardoning Turing because they did not want to set a precedent, but said there was no reason why everyone historically convicted of homosexuality should not be pardoned.

The government this year introduced legislation allowing people previously convicted of homosexuality to have the offence removed from their criminal record.

Even if that legislation doesn’t pass, I see no reason why Turing shouldn’t be singled out for a pardon. Says Lord Grade, “I do not think anybody would object [to granting a pardon]. Any right-minded citizen of this country ought to be keen to see a hero recognised.”

I’m not sure I have enough faith in humanity to agree with that, but it’d sure be nice.

(The Telegraph, via BoingBoing)

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  • Daniel Reasor

    The pardon wouldn’t be for Turing’s sake; it would be for Great Britain’s, an acknowledgement of and repentance for injustice.

  • Chanel Diaz

    Germany’s apologized for their Past’s Injustices against the Jews, what the heck do they mean, “was PROPERLY convicted of what at the time was a criminal offense,” that’s SOOOO much different?!

    So, the British Government is basically saying that the Past’s Horrendous Inhumanities Against People, is OKAY, if it’s done in the Past. Why the heck we do we Teach History, then?

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

  • Marty Shuman

    I thought Lord McNally made a fairly compelling argument. He argued that since Turing had been in violation of the law of the time and prosecuted as such, pardoning him would look like Britain was trying to rewrite history. The British government has already issued a public apology, and as it stands, the treatment of Turing is a black mark on the government’s past that they absolutely deserve. I think it’s better for them to acknowledge their mistakes and strive to be better in the future than trying to repair their legacy.

    John Graham-Cumming, the main person behind the petition for an apology back in 2009 (which was acknowledged a month later after thousands of signatures) expressed his thoughts on the petition(s) for a pardon a little over a year ago:

    That being said, I would really like to see Turing become a more notable figure in the teachings of 20th Century history. Perhaps this is more the case in the UK, but in the US, I don’t feel that much of anyone has heard of him outside of computer science and cryptography circles. I’ve heard estimates that he and his immediate team personally advanced the end of WWII by as much as two years.

    I will also note that there is quite a bit of doubt as to whether Turing actually committed suicide, or merely died due to improper handling of cyanide during the experiments he was conducting the night he died. Turing was known to be careless in his experimental practices.

  • Sue Spencer

    I would love to see Britain pardon Turing. But even more, I’d love to see a general pardon issued for everyone ever convicted under that law.

  • Kifre

    I don’t like it. And I don’t like it for this reason: the act of pardoning someone – to me – legitimizes the conviction. It implies that there was some wrong committed by the accused which requires pardon. Lord McNally rightly points out that Turing was properly convicted – of something that ought *never to have been a crime*. Pardoning feels slightly inappropriate.

    Maybe an act of parliament annulling convictions under that law.

  • Anonymous

    I object for the same reasons. Turing deserves an apology visible from space, but a *pardon* is for a *crime*.