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Dec 30 2012

Hawking and other scientists petition for Turing’s posthumous pardon

Stephen Hawking and a number of other notable scientists and humanitarians in the UK are petitioning David Cameron to pardon Alan Turing, one of computing’s forefathers, for the crime of being gay.

Now, several of the nation’s top scientists, including Stephen Hawking, and other leaders have penned a letter to the Telegraph, throwing their support behind the bill.

They write:

SIR – We write in support of a posthumous pardon for Alan Turing, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the modern era. He lead the team of Enigma codebreakers at Bletchley Park, which most historians agree shortened the Second World War. Yet successive governments seem incapable of forgiving his conviction for the then crime of being a homosexual, which led to his suicide, aged 41.

We urge the Prime Minister formally to forgive this British hero, to whom we owe so much as a nation, and whose pioneering contribution to computer sciences remains relevant even today. To those who seek to block attempts to secure a pardon with the argument that this would set a precedent, we would answer that Turing’s achievements are sui generis. It is time his reputation was unblemished.

Lord Currie of Marylebone
Lord Grade of Yarmouth
Lord Faulkner or Worcester
Lord Rees of Ludlow

Astronomer Royal
Lord Sharkey
Lord Smith of Finsbury
Baroness Trumpington

Sir Timothy Gowers
Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics, Cambridge University
Dr Douglas Gurr
Chairman, Science Museum Group
Professor Stephen Hawking
Sir Paul Nurse
President, the Royal Society

I absolutely agree that Turing should be pardoned — with one reservation.

Turing’s life, and the events leading up to his death, were certainly a travesty. As I’ve previously explained:

[Turing] was drummed out of his government positions and stripped of his security clearance because he was gay. At the time, homosexuality was considered a mental illness, homosexual acts considered criminal offenses, and chemical castration the common sentence. Turing’s lover broke into his apartment with an accomplice to rob the place, and in filing the police report, Turing made the mistake of admitting to having had sexual relations with the burglar. Turing and the burglar were both convicted of gross indecency, and Turing was chemically castrated amid fears that the KGB was busy trying to gay-bait government officials. He was never charged with espionage, but his security clearance was stripped and as a result his government career ended. Shortly thereafter, he evidently took his own life, eating part of an apple he had apparently laced with cyanide, emulating his favorite childhood story, Snow White.

His orientation never should have been criminal, and he never should have been treated so poorly. Not because he was a valuable member of the intelligence community and responsible for cracking the Enigma cypher — which no doubt he was — but because there is absolutely nothing criminal about said orientation, and chemical castration is a hideous way of enforcing societal mores against non-damaging consensual behaviours.

Yes, it’s an absolute horror that such an important and valuable contributing member of society was treated so ill. But what of all the other folks who’ve been on the receiving end of this treatment throughout the decades the law’s been in place?

The argument that one cannot pardon someone for something that was a crime at the time is invalid, in my opinion. If you can swallow your pride enough to apologize posthumously, and if you’ve matured as a society enough to remove the laws prohibiting homosexuality, surely you could posthumously pardon all those poor souls whose lives the errant law ruined. Don’t just pardon Turing. Pardon them all.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    left0ver1under

    The British government takes the same view on Turing that US states take on wrongly convicted people who have been executed. Admitting errors and reinvestigating mistakes leaves them open to liability and culpability.

    Families of the wrongly killed in the US would have a right to sue if mistakes were admitted. The families of gay people in England (and gay people who are still a live) would be able to take action for being forced out of the government and military.

    Governments think this is about money when it rarely is. It’s about repairing the reputations of the wrongly accused, and about exposing the undeserved reputations of those who accused them.

  2. 2
    Pierce R. Butler

    All these brilliant British boffins collaborate on a brief statement, and none of them caught that “lead” was the wrong tense for this context?

    And was Lord Faulkner having an identity crisis with his domain?

  3. 3
    a-jay

    I was thinking the same thing. Surely Turing wasn’t the only one who was ever convicted for so-called ‘gross indecency’ purely on the basis of being a homosexual. Oscar Wilde is another example that comes to mind.

  4. 4
    M. A. Melby

    I guess it is actually a bit of a controversy whether or not he committed suicide, or if he accidentally poisoned himself due to essentially not keeping a clean lab.

    http://www.turingfilm.com/turing-suicide

    Regardless, certainly a mass pardon is in order.

  5. 5
    otrame

    I think that the thought is very well meant, but I also think that if I were Alan Turing and they offered me a pardon, I would tell them to fold it until it was all corners and shove it up their collective asses.

  6. 6
    Jenny B

    @left0ver1under

    in actuality the government is allowing gay men still living to have convictions and cautions for buggery and gross indecency removed from their criminal record since 1st October via the ‘Protection of Freedoms Act 2012′ if they were originaly charged under any of these laws…

    Section 12 or 13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956
    Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824
    Section 61 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861
    Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885
    Section 45 of the Naval Discipline Act 1866
    Section 41 of the Army Act 1881
    Section 41 of the Air Force Act 1917
    Section 70 of the Army Act 1955
    Section 70 of the Air Force Act 1955
    Section 42 of the Naval Discipline Act 1957

    http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/crime/decriminalised-sexual-offences/

    bit more info on it above, so its at least conceivable that it would not cause any legal issues pardoning since they’ve already admitted it was a mistake though I have no idea how liability works on laws that act retrospectively since they’re so rare an occurrence

  7. 7
    left0ver1under

    Jenny B –

    Are people forced out of the military asking to be given back their rank and possible promotions they would have earned? I suspect that they would want at least that, if not compensation for lost wages.

    Having a black mark removed isn’t enough to people whose career was ruined by a conviction for something that should never have been a crime. Going from “ex-corporal and ex-convict” to “second lieutanent (ret.)” would make a big difference to someone’s life and career prospects.

  8. 8
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    I don’t think “pardoned” is really the correct operation here.

  9. 9
    joe321

    I personally object to a couple of things in the petition.

    1: The PM is urged to forgive Turing. Forgiveness implies that he did something wrong; he did not.

    2: Rather than arguing that an exception should be made in Turing’s case, since he was sui generis (unique, I admit I had to look that one up!), shouldn’t a precedent be set? All people convicted of this “crime” should have their records cleared.

  10. 10
    John Horstman

    I, too, agree that the framing here is rather problematic.

  11. 11
    eucliwood

    Oh my gosh, I didn’t know that Turing was castrated…. damn :/ and being robbed by your own lover? what the fuck.

  12. 12
    Xanthë, Amy of my threads

    N.B. Chemical castration ≠ surgical castration. Basically he would have been compelled to undergo a course of anti-androgens (which probably would have been administered via IV injections at that time?) that would have killed his libido and had undesirable (for Turing) feminising effects on his body.

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