The Disturbingly Hollow Message of the Alan Turing Pardon

Famed World War II code breaker, and computer pioneer, Alan Turing has been pardoned by the British government. From the New York Times story:

Nearly 60 years after his death, Alan Turing, the British mathematician regarded as one of the central figures in the development of the computer, received a formal pardon from Queen Elizabeth II on Monday for his conviction in 1952 on charges of homosexuality, at the time a criminal offense in Britain.
The British prime minister, David Cameron, said in a statement: “His action saved countless lives. He also left a remarkable national legacy through his substantial scientific achievements, often being referred to as the ‘father of modern computing.’ ”

Mr. Turing committed suicide in 1954, two years after his conviction on charges of gross indecency.
When Mr. Turing was convicted in 1952, he was sentenced — as an alternative to prison — to chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He also lost his security clearance because of the conviction. He committed suicide by eating an apple believed to have been laced with cyanide.

That is about as nice, concise and antiseptic a take as can be had on the matter. The truth, and scathing comment on society therein, is quite a bit darker and uglier.

As Alice Bell put it in the Guardian:

That Turing’s work helped win the war, and that it has had such a large social and economic impact beyond that, makes his treatment by the state especially embarrassing. But his life and his homosexuality are no more meaningful just because he was a genius we (perhaps despite ourselves) managed to benefit from. To use his work in computer science as a basis for this pardon seems to trivialise both the huge contribution of that work and, perhaps more importantly, the history of gay rights.

Right. But it is even darker than the common story of privilege and celebrity gaining advantage. That the pardon came nearly sixty years after Turing’s death in forced shame (whether by suicide or not), makes the pardon act almost sad and meaningless. It does nothing for Turing, at this point it is mostly a cute and happy Christmas feel good move for the British throne and government. The hollowness of the move at this point saps much of the joy.

The criminal charge Turing was convicted of was section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. Turing was hardly an isolated case; we hear now about him only because of his celebrity. As David Allen Green relates, there were a LOT of others:

In practice, if the police obtained sufficient evidence they would normally prosecute, and the courts would then usually convict. In all there were an estimated 75,000 convictions under section 11 (and its successor offence in the Sexual Offences Act 1956). One of these convictions was of Oscar Wilde, who was sentenced in 1895 to two years’ hard labour (the “severest sentence that the law allows” remarked the judge). But, perhaps counter-intuitively, most of these prosecutions did not happen in the days of Victorian prudery, but in the two to three decades after 1931.

One of these prosecutions was to be of Turing.

And the pardon was not just meaningless to Turing because he was dead the date, lo some 59 years later, when it was issued, it was meaningless too because if Turing were still alive, the equivalent would had already been available by act of law. As David Allen Green further relates:

A recent statute – the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 – provides a scheme where those who had been convicted of the section 11 offence (and similar offences) can apply for their entire criminal records to be removed if the facts of the case would no longer count as a crime. It would be as if the offence had not been committed at all. These are not pardons – they go much further: the 2012 scheme removes the taint of criminality altogether, and with no fussing about not affecting the conviction or the sentence.

But the 2012 scheme is only for those still alive.

Lastly, Green goes back to the “why only Turing” bit that ought to gnaw at all who celebrate the pardon today:

Turing’s conviction was just one of about 75,000 under a vindictive law. But here is no logical reason why his should be regarded as a unique case. The actual wrong done to Turing was also one done to many thousands of men, and so any righting of that wrong must apply to those men too.

If Alan Turing is to be pardoned then so should all men convicted under section 11 if the facts of their cases would not be a crime today. But a better posthumous gesture would be to simply extend the 2012 scheme to all those who are now dead. Removing the criminal records completely of all those prosecuted who would not be prosecuted today on the same facts would be a better legislative gesture than a single statutory pardon, if there is to be a legislative gesture at all.

Precisely. If you want to honor Turing, make right not just by him, but all those similarly situated. And there are a lot of such men in history. This supposedly benevolent act of the Queen and British government rings hollow and self serving, there is much more than one heroic man to atone for.

Lastly, I urge a full read of David Allen Green’s piece in the New Statesman. It is long and detailed, but truly tells the full tale that ought be told regarding the atrocious history of Alan Turing’s offense, conviction then, and disturbingly hollow pardon now. And, the beauty of it is, Green penned his piece over six months ago, long before today’s pardon came down.

19 replies
  1. Frank33 says:

    Alan Turing was wrongfully victimized by the British Government, and driven to suicide. Sound familiar, it is similar to what happened to Aaron Swartz. Turing helped to decipher the ENIGMA machine used by the German military during WWII.

    Turing was also one of the most talented mathematicians of his generation. Turing made important research advances about the Riemann Zeta function which is one of my favorite functions.

    It is advisable to verify any claims made by Green because Green is a liar and a bully.

    I had to publicly rough up David Allen Green. I call him, Daggie. Daggie is smart, no dubt about it. But he is a lawyer and he should know better than to slander Julian Assange by accusing Assange of rape against two women. The US Government also accused Assange of something, but that remains secret.

    Since Green is a PR flack, maybe he received a no-bid secret contract from the NSA to destroy Julain Assange. Or maybe he is just jealous of Assange, because Assange was romanced by two Swedish ladies.

    Daggie is not just a Social Media Expert and PR flack. He is the Leading UK lawyer on Social Media. He says so himself.

    David Allen Green is Of Counsel at Preiskel & Co. He advises on contentious and non-contentious commercial, technology, media, and communications matters. He is perhaps the leading UK lawyer on social media and was the solicitor in the successful appeal of the “Twitter Joke Trial” case, Chambers v DPP [2012] EWHC 2157 (Admin).

  2. bmaz says:

    @Frank33: David did not accuse Assange of rape, the Swedish government has done that. And there is not one shred of evidence that the US government has accused Julian Assange of squat, indeed the evidence is directly to the contrary. All Green did was point out why the posturing by Assange over his extradition is bullshit, which every court in Britain and Europe that has touched it has confirmed (and the ECHR has refused to rebut). So, if you want to peddle your conspiracy theories, please do it somewhere else and refrain from gratuitous name calling against David Green. It has nothing to do with this post.

  3. JTMinIA says:

    “Alan Turing was wrongfully victimized by the British Government, and driven to suicide. Sound familiar, it is similar to what happened to Aaron Swartz.”

    I had the exact same reaction.

    To pardon someone who was driven to suicide for doing something that many would not consider to be a crime is beyond disingenuous. It’s insult to injury. A pardon for all “victims” of Section 11 – don’t just add dead people to the list of those eligible to request it; pardon them all, right now, and be done with it – is the only positive option.

  4. ffein says:

    I read this this morning and found it really sad — also that it happened in my lifetime is really depressing — and thought about all the people who wish life was as it was in the ’50s — “the good old days” — for some I guess, but certainly not for many!

  5. lysias says:

    The British government went after Turing because of (1) the access which he had had to very sensitive government secrets and (2) McCarthyism in the United States, which went as much after homosexuals as after Communists in the United States. After the high-ranking British diplomats/spies McLean (bisexual) and Burgess (gay) defected to the Soviet Union after they had been exposed as Soviet agents, Britain was very anxious to stay in the good graces of the U.S. government.

  6. Frank33 says:

    I do not want to get OT too much. But Turing’s work on early computers and Riemann Zeta, was significant. And his premature death was a sad loss for Mathematics and Science. Turing was the first researcher to use a computer to find zeros of R-Z, and he proved 1104 zeros were on the critical line.

    The chemical injections that the British Government inflicted on Turing should be considered Government sponsored torture. The US Government uses chemical torture on the prisoners at Gitmo.

    There does seem to be one shred of evidence that the US Government has, or had charges against Assange. Thank you Strafor. And KKKarl Rove is part of that conspiracy.

    “Peddle your conspiracies theories”, is that the best you can say? Sounds like Daily Kos. I would not call myself a conspiracy theorist but I may be a conspiracy researcher. That is because the Secret Government has so many clumsy conspiracies directed against the American people.

    But I respect you for defending your friend.

  7. Peterr says:

    I like where Alice Bell went after the bit you cited in the post:

    We don’t celebrate Turing enough probably in part because he was gay, and also probably because he was a computer scientist and we don’t value that history enough either. But it was also, I’m sure, because he wasn’t someone to court a public profile and he did do a fair bit of his key work in secret. If you want to rectify this, read up on him (or listen to this audio of a great lecture from Jon Agar), and share what you’ve learnt with your friends and family. Don’t fall for this pardon story.

    Put him on a banknote. Better, put him in the school curriculum; as an icon in the history of science, but also in terms of a history of gay rights. Section 28 and its ilk have kept such debate out of classrooms long enough. But pardon him? Please. Beg pardon yourself.

    For a bit of perspective, consider this.

    Elizabeth became queen three weeks before Turing was arrested, and two months before his trial. She was queen when he was chemically castrated, queen when his security clearance was stripped, and queen when he committed suicide. She personally has had plenty of time to have done this before he died, and did not. She had plenty of power to have spoken up before this, and did not.

    I generally like the Queen, but this posthumous remittance of his sentence is a slap in the face. If this pardon had been accompanied by a proclamation denouncing the law under which Turing and others were convicted, and expressing regret at the burdens and pains that this law put upon Turing and all of the otherwise law abiding British citizens convicted (or threatened by) it, that would be one thing. But that didn’t happen.

    Standing as it does alone, this pardon is a sad attempt at sweeping injustice and accountability under the Royal Rug.

  8. bmaz says:

    @Frank33: Alright, perhaps my statement was a bit strong. Sorry. Agree completely about who and what Turing was. Fully aware of the Stratfor bit, but Stratfor has been a laughingstock since long before their Wikileaks era.

    At any rate, Merry Christmas Frank.

  9. lysias says:

    @lysias: Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe of Churchill’s 1950’s Tory government conducted a regular witch hunt against British homosexuals in the mid-1950’s:

    In the cold war atmosphere of the 1950s, when witch hunts later called the Lavender Scare were ruining the lives of many gay men and lesbian women in the United States, the parallel political atmosphere in Britain was virulently anti-homosexual. The then Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, had promised “a new drive against male vice” that would “rid England of this plague.” As many as 1,000 men were locked up in Britain’s prisons every year amid a widespread police clampdown on homosexual offences. Undercover officers acting as “agents provocateurs” would pose as gay men soliciting in public places. The prevailing mood was one of barely concealed paranoia.

    On two occasions [Baron] Montagu [of Beaulieu] was charged and committed for trial at Winchester Assizes, firstly in 1953 for allegedly taking sexual advantage of a 14-year-old Boy Scout at his beach hut on the Solent, a charge he has always denied. When prosecutors failed to achieve a conviction, in what Montagu has characterized as a “witch hunt” to secure a high-profile conviction, he was arrested again in 1954 and charged with performing “gross offences” with an RAF serviceman during a weekend party at the beach hut, located on Lord Montagu’s country estate.

  10. bloodypitchfork says:

    @bmaz: And good wishes for Edward. In the meantime, bah humbug.

    quote”I generally like the Queen,…unquote ..

    Really? You like???? A queen? Are you mad?? In the 21st century? A human being still acquiesces to the thought that some pompous blood line aquifer of pond scum still represents a Mandate of Heaven that rules over a supranational blood sucking murdering sycophants of evil itself?


    spare us.

  11. lysias says:

    @bloodypitchfork: The House of Hanover and their descendants are a bunch of usurpers. The legitimate kings of England, Ireland, and Scotland are the heirs of the Stuarts, i.e., the Wittelsbachs.

  12. Nigel Parry says:

    Turing was an easy pardon because he saved the world. There’s a lot of people the British government needs to apologize to—after being the biggest empire on the planet for a couple hundred years during which it ruled one-fifth of the global population with an iron fist. But empires don’t like looking backwards. Consequently, pardons and truth commissions, and dealing with history aren’t exactly the staple business of government.

    This wasn’t something the Queen got up one day and decided to do. Turing was pardoned because there was a public campaign to have him pardoned.

    The scenario your penultimate paragraph imagines seems to incorrectly conflate the final step in a technical governmental/legal procedure with the origin of the pardoning energy—which absolutely did not begin in the government.

    Instead of seeing this as some “hollow” thing “the Queen did”, consider that this is something that British people made its government do. And we won. Perhaps the next stage is to do what we did with Turing for all of the rest. And we’ve already won the first round.

  13. bmaz says:

    @Nigel Parry: Sure. But you scenario presupposes that nobody in said government had the thought or wherewithal to pardon all similarly situated, and that they could only possibly think to do that which was suggested by popular petition. That, of course, is not correct. In fact, of course, it was publicly suggested all along it should cover all the Turings, not just Turing himself. David Allen Green’s missive was quite public and made five months before the act. so the impetus was there; the act could have been done.

  14. magchiel matthijsen says:

    This history which still is not a closed chapter (thank you Nigel Parry), should make us a bit more cautious and reflexive to juge the russian relation which they have with homosexuality. Every country has his own pace of coming to an understanding of it and that’s especcialy the case with those countries (also the Arabian ones!) where the political culture is so strongly linked to (state)religion. It is nothing else as an easy and hypocritical move for those countries which have this process already partly behind them to not attend the Olympic Games in Sotchi. Only so short a time ago they were in a position which was no different at all.

  15. Cujo359 says:

    ISTM that if the UK government was trying to say that it’s put the spirit of Section 11 behind it, a far more effective thing would have been to pardon everyone convicted under the act, no matter what his station. As it was, my first reaction to this news was “Fat lot of good that does”, and thanks to bmaz and the discussion here, I see no reason to change that opinion.

  16. shekissesfrogs says:

    @magchiel matthijsen: I appreciate your comment. In my opinion there are many reasons to boycott the Olympics and FIFA already: the social impact on the local populations, exploitation of workers, and corruption.
    We don’t actually promote fair treatment or acceptance of minority groups at home, but use their issues as a cultural political wedges, in the service of capital and FP.

  17. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The ever transparent and forthcoming Mr. Cameron would have more accurately described Mr. Turing’s death as “‘forced suicide’ while clinically depressed, owing to officially mandated ‘chemical castration’ and an official campaign of censure and discriminatory treatment, lest as a credible source he reveal state secrets”.

    It was just one more dirty trick in an overloaded bag of government secrets, at a time when the Brits were reeling from the war and its aftermath, from American demands to repay their loans and American refusal to live up to its agreement to share atomic data, and Britain’s own folly in acting as if its upper crust couldn’t possibly harbour traitors such as Burgess, Maclean, Philby, and Blunt.

    As you say, if Mr. Cameron were acting honestly rather than seeking cost-free political points, he would have issued a blanket pardon for all those convicted under the prior legislation. Scrooge is more likely to buy the Cratchits their Christmas goose ten times over.

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