British Lawmakers Fail Turing Test


Disappointingly, the push to have Alan Turing pardoned for the “crime” of homosexuality (aka “gross indecency”) has come to a halt.

In the House of Lords on February 2nd Lord McNally stated that the government had already considered this in 2009 and continued:

“A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted. It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd-particularly poignant 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”.

This pisses me off for two reasons. They’re closely related. The first is this:

He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted.

We could pass a law against the eating of corn syrup as well. Those people who cannot afford the time to cook from scratch would know that their meals were against the law and that they would be prosecuted. “Properly” convicted, no less, with all the necessary bells and whistles propping up the injustice. That still wouldn’t give us any right to have declared these people criminals for surviving in an unjust world.

The British government, however, is clinging to that right. “He broke our law. He knew he would be prosecuted.” No mention of the other choices he faced, of course. No mention, either, that standing by this prosecution was a choice for the government then and is one now.

That brings me to the second reason this statement is all wrong: “[L]ong-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”.

These times have “those times” as part of their current context. Nobody thinks that pardoning Turing and others convicted of the same crime will help them in any way. No one thinks it will undo chemical castration and prison sentences or restore lost lives and careers. No one thinks the past can be undone.

We do know that regressive forces often treat the past as precedent, however. We know that there is no guarantee we will “never again return to those times”, not when there is a constant pressure to do so. We also know that this pressure comes in the form of a narrative that we’ve gone too far, that otherwise rational people have succumbed to loud protests from a small minority and done something they would never have done if they were listening to everyone. We know there is always a push to take just one little step backward.

Now, you can say that won’t happen with gay rights. You can look around you and tell us both that we’ve changed too much to put up with that. But are you sure? Do you have that much faith that gay rights have become so entrenched in our societies that they can’t be touched by our periodic bouts of collective madness?

I don’t. I don’t trust in any such thing. Given that, I think it’s hugely important that any “little step backward” has to be big enough to cover several symbolic steps forward before it gets to the concrete steps that recognized basic human rights. We need to make the step from “consensual sex with another adult” to “criminal” as large as possible in the here and now, and that means not leaving a bunch of people who did nothing more than have consensual sex with another adult in the category of “criminal” as precedent.

It especially involves not shrugging and saying, “But they were criminals”, when they come up in conversation, as though it were all their doing and no one else could do anything more than throw their hands up. That part is just inhumane.

Comments

  1. says

    The House of Lords’ whole line of reasoning drives me crazy. The fact that homosexuality was against the law at the time and thus Turing wasn’t “wrongfully” convicted is a reason to pardon him. The conviction can’t be overturned, but the powers that be can still say “we wish this hadn’t happened”.

  2. says

    A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Galil*rying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we return to those times only when Pell is talking about climate change.

  3. says

    (please delete last, it got mangled somehow)

    A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Galileo Galilei was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted. It is tragic that Galileo Galilei was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd-particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to science. However, the law at the time and the dignity of the Church 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 return to those times only when Pell is talking about climate change.

  4. Dunc says

    I have to say that I think pardoning Turing alone would have been grossly unfair. Lots of people were prosecuted for consensual homosexual acts, and every single one of them was treated every bit as unfairly as Turing. The fact that he happened to be pivotal in the development of computing and played an important role at Bletchley Park whilst practically nobody has ever heard of any of the others is neither here nor there. Pardon all or pardon none.

    You shouldn’t get a pardon for being famous.

  5. says

    This is despicable. But on the plus side, for once it’s not US lawmakers who are making my blood boil with their utter disregard for common sense or compassion.

  6. recesnap says

    What happened to Alan Turing was tragic. It also tragically happened to many other gay men at the time, so if he deserves a pardon, so do they.

    As it happens, I can see the government’s logic here. I don’t often agree with them!

    A ‘pardon’ is now customarily used only when due process was correctly followed at the time but the person nevertheless was wrongly convicted, and is innocent. It has a specific meaning, in legal turns – it wipes the record completely clean of any crime. Turing did, in fact, commit the ‘crime’ he was convicted for, which we no longer consider to be a ‘crime’ – his case just doesn’t fit how pardons are now used. It’s not that he didn’t do it – in fact it’s important to remember that he did do it, and that it was illegal at the time, is it not?

    BTW, there is a piece of legislation in the House of Lords right now that will allow past convictions for consensual sex between men over the age of 16 to be disregarded from people’s criminal records, effectively wiping the slate clean without issuing pardons. So it’s not like the government is trying to avoid the problems created by the use of this unjust law, in fact it is actively making sure it no longer affects anyone.

  7. dcortesi says

    I think you ought to give a more sympathetic reading to that really striking sentence,

    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

    They are admitting that a wrong was done, and that the wrong was systematic, and that this systematic error should be guarded against. That’s pretty good for a bureaucracy.

    And also they are pointing up the reality that they cannot un-convict him or un-suicide him; they can at best pardon him, which amounts to nothing; it doesn’t nullify the old law or the trial or the punishment.

    And also consider that the impact of Turing’s tragedy would be lessened for future generations if he were pardoned now. Leave it standing as a stark warning to the future, and a monument to all those who were similarly harmed.

  8. F says

    dcortesi

    You have a fair point. What I was thinking, though, is that the statement should have been far stronger – hell, it deserves a speech, a resolution, an apology on behalf of the historic government, and a promise that shit like this won’t be happening again, and that we’re getting straight on to work with addressing current similar issues right now.

    I don’t understand what the problem is with governments addressing the shit their nations had done wrong in the past. Like gross discrimination, genocide, imperialism. Could it be that they don’t want to address their current inhumane actions, policies, and laws?

  9. says

    A legal question. If a person is in prison when a law is changed and their actions no longer illegal are they released, or do they need to serve the rest of their sentence?

  10. Roger says

    People alive now convicted of such ‘crimes’ should be offered pardons if they want them, but in the case of Turing and others there shouldbe no pardons. Being convicted of absurd ‘crimes’ under wicked laws is no disgrace, but it will remind us that such laws existed and were enforced and help us be less arrogant in our own assumptions of moral superiority.

  11. recesnap says

    F, the British Government did in fact apologize for the treatment of Alan Turing back in 2009.

    The complete text of the apology can be found here:
    http://blog.jgc.org/2011/07/complete-text-of-gordon-browns-apology.html

    Seriously, no-one is disputing that the law was wrong, that Turing was a hero, and that his treatment was appalling. It just so happens that a ‘pardon’ is a specific legal process that doesn’t fit his circumstances.

    Of course, they could do what they did with the WW1 servicemen who were shot for cowardice, and create a specific ‘pardon’ for the situation that acknowledges the deficiencis of the laws at the time without having the actual function of a pardon of rescinding the conviction and sentence. I don’t personally think that is a very wothwhile route, since it involves spending parliamentary time on making people feel better without actually doing anything real.

  12. Timberwoof says

    After WWII, when the Allied forces liberated the concentration camps, they did not free the homosexuals, for they were “properly convicted” under German law. Ironically, it was not until the Unification that the Federal Republic’s laws against gay sex were wiped off the books: the Democratic Republic had repealed them long ago.

    A symbolic gesture is better than insisting that there should be none.

  13. maureen.brian says

    In this instance I believe that Lord McNally – perfectly nice bloke, bought me a G&T once – is mistaken.

    In 2006, after plenty of campaigning, the 300+ soldiers who were shot for cowardice or desertion during WWI were formally pardoned by Parliament. This was done on two grounds –

    * That we now know considerably more about both PTSD and the effects of sending sick and injured soldiers back into the front line before they are recovered.

    * That the hastily convened Courts Martial which condemned these men were not equipped nor did they have the time (or the motivation?) fully to explore the causes.

    Because the records were sketchy or had gone missing in some cases there was no possibility of re-examining each case so then the only honourable thing for the government to do was to pardon the lot of them.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6046010.stm

  14. says

    @ peicurmudgeon: I believe that nulla poena sine lege works both ways. If you did something before it was banned, you can’t be punished for it; but if something was un-banned after you did it, your sentence still stands; unless the Statutory Instrument which legalised the formerly-criminal act made specific provisions for restitution, expungement of criminal records &c. Vide Jack Herer’s prototype bill in The Emperor Wears No Clothes, which included specific reparations for persons formerly convicted of cannabis-related offences.

  15. says

    @ BecomingJulie – thanks. It is easy to get emotional about an issue such as this, but understanding the law, and therefore the limitations of Parliament is more difficult.

    It seems from the discussion above that a simple pardon is not possible, but there are specific measures that Parliament can do to rectify the situation.

  16. says

    peicurmudgeon, no, it is possible.

    It is only words affixed to paper.

    The people who would be called upon to affix those words to paper have chosen not to.

    I think the reason is because those people don’t want to admit, even to themselves, how shallow and petty the “reasoning” behind the “law” really is.

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