Pardoning Alan Turing

Heather Cox Richardson

Last week the British House of Lords declined to pardon Alan Turing for the crime of being gay. Convicted of indecency in 1952, Turing chose chemical castration rather than a prison term. Two years later, he killed himself by ingesting cyanide. Perhaps not ironically—since such symbolism was almost certainly intentional when committed by such a brilliant individual—he administered the poison to himself in an apple.

Alan Turing is widely considered to be the father of the modern computer. He was a key figure in Britain’s World War II code breaking center at Bletchley Park, inventing a machine that could break ciphers, including the difficult German Enigma codes. After the war, he continued to work in the world of artificial intelligence. Engineers still use the Turing Test to judge a machine’s ability to show intelligent behavior.

In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a formal apology to Dr. Turing. Noting that the brilliant scientist had truly helped to turn the tide of war, Brown called it “horrifying” that he was treated “so inhumanely.” “While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him,” Brown said. “So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry. You deserved so much better.”

The formal apology was followed by an on-line petition asking British government officials to pardon Turing. By February 2012, 23,000 people had signed it. Last week, the Justice Minister declined to do as they asked. “A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turning was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence,” he explained.

Never shy about his defense of gay rights, columnist Dan Savage compared the conviction of Turing to the conviction of a Swiss man who also broke a law we now find appalling. In 1942, Jakob Spirig helped Jewish refugees from Germany cross into Switzerland, and was sent to prison for his crime. In January 2004, the Swiss government pardoned Spirig, and all other people convicted for helping refugees escaping Nazi Germany. Savage asked the House of Lords: “Did the Swiss government err when it pardoned Jakob Spirig? Or did you err by not pardoning Alan Turing?

Much though I hate to disagree with Dan Savage, who could rest on his laurels for the It Gets Better Project alone, I’m not a fan of pardoning people who have committed the crime of being human under inhumane laws. This describes Turing. He doesn’t need a pardon; the society that made him a criminal does. As the Justice Minster went on to explain: “It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd, particularly... 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.”

An apology is appropriate; a pardon is not.

Some things can never be put right. Pardoning a dead victim for the crime of being hated is a gift to the present, not the past. It lets modern-day people off the hook. They can be comfortable in their own righteousness, concluding that today’s injustices have nothing to do with such right-thinking people as they are. But they do. Laws reflect a society, and the ones that turned Turing and Spirig into criminals implicated not just their homophobic or pro-Nazi fellow citizens, but all of the members of their society who accepted those laws. A pardon in a case like Turing’s is a Get Out of Jail Free card not for him, but for us.

It’s way too late to pardon Alan Turing. And it’s way too early to pardon ourselves.