Alan Turing gets a pardon

In case you haven’t heard, Queen Elizabeth pardoned Alan Turing from his 1952 conviction for Sodomy. By today’s standards, the conditions under which Turing was convicted and branded a criminal, and his subsequent treatment, were nothing short of appalling. So three cheers for the Queen for undoing a great injustice. (Not that she would give a rat’s arse what this Yank thinks, especially a Yank who couldn’t be bothered taking Queen’s birthday seriously as a holiday when he lived under the Queen’s rule.)

This said, I have a bit of a deeper problem with all of this. For example, the pardon has little more than symbolic value. What really has been accomplished by this act, other than the Queen and greater English society generally recognizing how important Alan Turing was for Britain, and how stupid the law was that labeled Turing the father of computer science and war as into a criminal pervert? Turing, as a result of his conviction, was chemically castrated and the subsequent effect was to turn a fit, virile, and productive young man into an obese eunuch with depression severe enough to cause his 1954 suicide. We’ll never know what we lost, and we’ll never get it back as a result of the pardon.

There are deeper problems with the pardon, however. For one, the law under which Turing was convicted was repealed in 1967. Society has apparently recognized for the past 46 years that the Sodomy law was wrong, incompatible with a free society. Turing’s conviction must have had been a factor in causing the change of mind that brought on the repeal. So greater society really did not need to be re-educated: the outrage over what happened to Turing is pretty plain and near-universal.

Then there’s the logic of the pardon, which is sorely lacking. Outrageous as the Sodomy law is by today’s standard, Turing was clearly guilty of violating it. If Turing had not violated it and was wrongly convicted, then of course he should be pardoned. But he was guilty. Turing, as part of his naive nature – he never imagined he was doing anything wrong – never flinched from telling police the truth about his sexual liaisons with a man. Again, I cannot stress how much I am truly disgusted by the law and the consequences for Turing and anyone who admires what he accomplished in his tragically short life. But the pardon, a good intention it is, is wrong.

Having read Hodges’ biography of Turing (as well as a couple of lesser biographies – Hodges’ is really the one to read if you want to learn about the man and his work), I can guess that, while Turing would appreciate the attention to the injustice of the Sodomy law and his treatment by the government he served so well, he would be bemused by the pardon. Turing if nothing else was a stickler for logic and would likely not understand why he was being pardoned for something for which he was guilty, even if the law under which he was found guilty of violating was horrifically unjust.

And, finally, even if the pardon made any sense, there’s the problem of the roughly 75,000 men who were also found guilty under the Sodomy law. Must the Queen now pardon all of these anonymous men and clear their names? Or is Turing a special case because he solved the Entscheidungsproblem? No: while Turing is a test case, justice is not served unless all of these nameless men are unburdened by their convictions as well.

So how could the Queen best serve justice for Alan Turing and the thousands unjustly branded criminal perverts in the 1950’s? How about simply commemorating Turing and teaching his story to our children, about the consequences of unjust laws? Instead, the pardons are like an annulment: the convictions never happened, so we may now close the books on them and pretend they never existed. And Britain was always great and never made mistakes and treated her heroes with all due respect. The whitewash is now complete.

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Ron Gordon

Math nerd in his early 40's who seems to have an opinion about everything and an inability to keep it to himself.

  • Marianne

    Ron, I really enjoy reading what you write. More times than not I learn something new. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and opinion!s. Keep them coming.
    Marianne O’Brien