UK government ignores Turing’s “moral innocence”

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Alan Turing, an English mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist, is considered by many to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. Turing has been credited for his substantial contributions during the Second World War, in which he was instrumental in deciphering the Enigma Code for the Allied forces.

He also is largely responsible for the development of the first reprogrammable computer. Yet many of Turing’s achievements remained classified until after his death, due to their pivotal tactical role during the war; that he never got the acclaim he deserved in life only makes for a more tragic outlook on the way he was treated in 1952.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of his conviction of “gross indecency” for engaging in a homosexual relationship, at a time when a draconian legislation dating back to 1885 still applied in Britain. Turing was faced with the options of imprisonment or “hormone therapy” that amounted to chemical castration.

Turing opted for the latter and, in 1954, he was discovered at home, having ingested cyanide. Turing’s genius in the emerging field of computer science was well understood by his colleagues; at 41 years of age a career with unimaginable potential was cut short. The greater tragedy of course, is that this man was denied his humanity.

In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a formal apology to Turing following a large public outcry and massive online support for a petition to this effect. Despite expressions of deep regret and acknowledging the unjust manner in which Turing was treated, he never received an official government pardon.

In recognition of Turing’s centenary a current petition is calling for this pardon; online it already carries nearly 30,000 signatures. The motion for this pardon was recently considered, and rejected, by the British government. Aside from the potential for homophobic prejudice still existing within the government, there are other more disturbing possibilities as to why this happened.

Perhaps their concern sits with the precedent that this case will set for the future. Legislators are supposedly worried about having to give the same sort of pardon to thousands of elderly victims of this archaic law, as well they should. In saying that pardoning Turing is inappropriate, the argument has been made that Turing rationally chose to break the law and offering his pardon would lend credence to a “civil disobedience” can of worms for any other current laws which society at large deems unjust.

Instead of focusing on righting past wrongs, the government is worried about the current consequences of raising public awareness of their own fallibility. Yet imagine living in a time or place where there exists legislation that conflicts with fundamental aspects of your being; in this case, barring you from a consensual and loving relationship with your partner.

I do not think it absurd to question how anyone could reasonably stop themselves from being who they are. To be expected to forsake one’s humanity; to be forcibly separated from forming such a bond with another person was the crime in this case. Another caveat made by opponents of the Turing pardon has been the very nature of pardon-grants in Britain. They are typically reserved for cases where the act was committed, but the persons involved are “morally innocent.” This clause of moral innocence was used to posthumously pardon soldiers who were shot for cowardice in the First World War, for example.

I do not see a distinction here between the “moral innocence” of those who refuse to take another human life and those who choose to act on their love for another human being. This was not a case of Turing making a rational choice to break the law; the law was in itself, a broken one.

Granting Turing this pardon serves the purpose of recognizing that he was a morally innocent victim of an unjust law, as were the thousands of other men and women faced with imprisonment or chemical castration by virtue of an essential quality of their being.

As a pioneer of computer science and hero of the Second World War, the tragedy of Turing’s final years has finally entered the public consciousness; thousands are rallying for the cause of recognizing the fact that governments are not infallible, and must atone for their transgressions. Hopefully, with mounting public disapproval for the government’s handling of the Turing case, justice can be served once and for all for this man, and for every victim still living with the consequences of legislation borne out of prejudice and bigotry.

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