Current Magazine

No Pardon for Alan Turing: House of Lords Rejects Petition

Posted on the 08 February 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
No pardon for Alan Turing: House of Lords rejects petition

Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park. Photocredit:

A petition calling for a posthumous pardon for Alan Turing, the computer science genius whose work was vital for British intelligence in the Second World War, has been rejected by the House of Lords, who have cited the question of precedent. The petition gathered 21,000 signatures. This year marks the centenary of Turing’s birth.

Turing helped to crack Germany’s Enigma code, and was key in developing artificial intelligence, even giving his name to the “Turing Test”, by which the intelligence of machines is measured. His life, however, ended sadly: in 1952, said Wired, he admitted to a sexual relationship with another man: a criminal offense at the time, known as “gross indecency”. He lost his security clearance and was forbidden to work with GCHQ any further.  He was given a choice between chemical castration and imprisonment; he chose the former, and later committed suicide by eating a poisoned apple.

In 2009 Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister, gave a full apology on behalf of the British people for his mistreatment. Oddly enough, or perhaps not, it is American commentators that are largely calling for his pardon; British ones are saying that it would set the wrong kind of precedent.

Prejudice still lurks. Carol Pinchefsky on Forbes was outraged, saying that it was “unconscionable” for the pardon to be denied. She put his work into context: before Turing’s breakthrough, “only 50 Enigma messages” were unravelled per week. With Turing, it ratcheted up to 3,000 a day. She acknowledged that it would be a nightmare if the government went around pardoning everybody, and there is a “technical difference between overturning a conviction for being a miscarriage of justice and overturning one because the law itself was unjust.” More unsettling is this problem: if you can pardon someone for something that’s been decriminalised retroactively, can you also charge people for something that’s only just become a crime? But still, she said, somehow overturning her own logic: “homosexuality is not a crime.” There is prejudice still in the House of Lords.

Human rights? A letter to The Guardian agreed: Eric Deakins wrote that Turing should be pardoned not because he was a “great intellectual”, but because his conviction was “a clear breach of his human rights.”

It would be impossible. That may be so, but Wired quoted John-Graham Cumming, who was behind the 2009 petition. It’s impossible, said Cumming, to think about pardoning Turing – it would be “unjust to the other gay men who suffered under the law.” Plus, there are still men “alive today with a criminal record” because of that law. Whilst a pardon for all convicted under that law would be something worth doing, one just for Turing doesn’t help at all.

Let’s not be like that again. There are proper legal reasons for not granting the pardon. As Lord Mcnally has stated, quoted on The Guardian, “”It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offense 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.”

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

Paperblog Hot Topics