Archive for February 9, 2012

Why not pardon Turing?

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , , , on February 9, 2012 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a quick comment or two on the government’s decision not to issue a posthumous pardon to Alan Turing, in the matter of his his criminal conviction for homosexuality, recently announced by Lord McNally. This is Lord McNally’s reply to a question asked by Lord Sharkey:

The question of granting a posthumous pardon to Mr Turing was considered by the previous Government in 2009.

As a result of the previous campaign, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an unequivocal posthumous apology to Mr Turing on behalf of the Government, describing his treatment as “horrifying” and “utterly unfair”. Mr Brown said the country owed him a huge debt. This apology was also shown at the end of the Channel 4 documentary celebrating Mr Turing’s life and achievements which was broadcast on 21 November 2011.

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.

In other words he is using the argument that Turing was properly convicted of behaviour that was considered an offence at the time so that conviction should not be negated.

This argument is entirely specious. A pardon is an act of clemency or forgiveness, exercised under the royal prerogative whenever advised by the government. It is not the mechanism for overturning wrongful convictions, so the observation that this conviction was lawful at the time is a red herring. Moreover, in what I consider to be an entirely analogous situation, all soldiers convicted and executed for cowardice in World War I actually received pardons in 2006. Their actions were also considered punishable at the time. This sets a clear precedent. Why is the Turing case logically different?

The answer to that is that if Turing were to receive a pardon, why should all the other gay people convicted of the criminal offence of being homosexual not also receive pardons? Why does it matter logically in this case that Turing was a brilliant mathematician who made immense contributions to the Allied effort during World War II? What about those gay men who were prevented from joining the services because of their sexuality? Why should one’s brilliance or eminence in a given field lead one to be treated differently under the law? Wouldn’t that just be saying “yes, he was gay, which is a problem, but we’ll forgive him because he made up for it in other ways”?

I think the government’s primary motivation for denying a pardon in this case is in fact the argument I just gave: that they should then have to pardon everyone convicted of homosexuality…

Of course you might ask in that case why it is that people are campaigning for a pardon for Turing in particular? Why not campaign for a universal pardon? I admit that it’s slightly illogical to do so, but it’s a question of pragmatism. Arguing the case for Turing in particular provides a focus which hopefully will lead to a wider resolution of the issue.

Asking for a posthumous pardon isn’t asking for very much, but I suspect the government is more worried about those people still alive who were convicted of homosexuality before 1967, which is when such acts were decriminalized. The case for denying pardons in this situation, when pardons were granted in the case of the executed WWI troops, therefore rests entirely on the possibility that there may be some pesky people who were convicted of homosexuality in the past but who unfortunately, unlike Turing, are not yet dead.

That’s the message this decision sends from the government to gay people.


Graffiti Politti

Posted in Art, Politics with tags , , , on February 9, 2012 by telescoper