Alan Turing And the Problems With Posthumous Pardons

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

On December 24th, 2013, Queen Elizabeth singed the pardon of Alan Turing, employing the Royal Prerogative of Mercy and superseding the legislative process that was set to pardon Alan Turing in February of 2014.  Turing, a mathematical genius who was an instrumental code breaker during WWII whilst working at the now famous Bletchley Park, had been convicted of Gross Indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885.  His ‘crime’ was having had sex with another man.  For this he was given probation and ‘treatment’ to decrease his libido.  The treatment made him sterile, effectively castrating Turing chemically, whilst also causing gynecomastia, a condition that results in the growth of breasts on men.  Upon first glance, it seems that a pardon was long overdue, and though the pardon may be well-intentioned, it is problematic for a number of reasons.

 

John Graham started the petition to pardon Turing in 2009.

John Graham started the petition to pardon Turing in 2009.

Though a gesture such as this obviously seeks to correct a past wrong, there are issues to consider, namely the treatment of celebrity personalities.  Turing, unlike many amatorists, was a recognizable figure.  Historically, Turing will be remembered in his field for generations to come for his contributions to mathematics and computer science.  Offering a pardon to a celebrity figure, whilst simultaneously not extending a pardon to all others convicted of the same ‘crime’ demonstrates that whilst progress is being made, the working-class and common people are not offered the same courtesies as the privileged or the exceptional.  It suggests the validation of one’s sexual orientation is only offered to those who have distinguished themselves in other ways, implying that the government’s apology only extends to people of a certain class.

 

 

David Cameron likely won't be upset of Turing's pardon increases his party's popularity.

David Cameron likely won’t be upset of Turing’s pardon increases his party’s popularity.

Aside from the exclusivity of the pardon, there is also the issue of the pardon serving as a piece of political posturing.  British Prime Minister David Cameron is the head of The Conservative Party.  Though he handily won an election in 2005, a coalition government had to be formed after the 2010 elections.  Being conservative, the party’s stance on ‘homosexuality’ and marriage equality could be a potential roadblock in ingratiating themselves to many voters.  A public pardon for Turing could do much to appease voters aligned with the LGBTQ community and even gain support, if not from people who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, at the very least from people who consider themselves allies and can now rationalize voting for a conservative party.  When pushing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through, Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying that it would have Americans with African heritage voting for the Democrats for 200 years, and used a pejorative terms in articulating this sentiment.  He was doing the right things for the wrong reasons and his personal sentiments clearly did not work in concert with his public persona.  I don’t think that such an overt statement of purpose will arise from the Turing pardon, but if political gain is the motive, then the pardon may be an exploitative act that further victimizes Turing and the LGBTQ community.

Queen Elizabeth II, who signed a royal pardon for Turing.

Queen Elizabeth II, who signed a royal pardon for Turing.

The potential for political posturing is not the only problem present, as the pardon itself is problematic for two reasons.  Pardons are, by definition, acts of forgiveness and a cancellation of the relevant penalty.  On the first count, Turing needs no forgiveness.  To offer a pardon suggests that he did, in fact, do something wrong.  It is not Turing, but rather, the government that needs a pardon.  The government not only asserted themselves in the private sphere of a citizen’s bedroom, projecting authority over the private lives of consenting adults, but also meted out what can fairly be referred to as cruel and unusual punishment.  Forcing a man to take drugs that result in a chemical castration and gynecomastia is the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment.  For the government to adopt the role of pardoner here demonstrates how grossly they misinterpret the nature of the actual crime that was committed.  For the other purpose of a pardon, cancellation of the relevant penalty, the government is a little too late for this.  The castration has been completed, Turing was forbidden from traveling abroad to several places, lost his job, and served and completed a probationary period.  He completed the punishment handed down to him, so the pardon does not cancel his punishment.  His death, which was either a suicide or a homicide, ensured the totality of his sentence went beyond what the court prescribed.  A pardon, in this sense, is futile.

 

'Lord' McNally argued against the pardon, though he wants to ensure people never have to endure what Turing endured again.

‘Lord’ McNally argued against the pardon, though he wants to ensure people never have to endure what Turing endured again.

Posthumous pardons are not offered for the sake of the victim of the miscarriage of justice, but for the living.  In many cases, the surviving family suffers from the conviction and resulting sentence.  A pardon vindicates not their loved one, but their faith in that lost person.  Turing’s family extends far beyond his biological family into a metaphorical and cultural family.  For members of the LGBTQ community family, this pardon can be seen as a recognition that the government has no right to assert themselves in the bedrooms of consenting adults.  It can be seen as a validation of their rights to choose who they are, and who their partners are going to be.  The government is recognizing their past wrongs, and telling future generations that past mistakes will not be repeated. It is akin to the Canadian government extending an apology to the children who attended the Residential School and who suffered emotional, physical and cultural abuse, oftentimes resulting in death, and the families that lost the opportunity raise their children.  The apology does nothing to correct the wrongs that were done, but assures future generations that the same mistakes will not be made.  It also demonstrates that others who are members of marginalized groups today do have an avenue to correct the mistreatment they currently endure.

 

 

Chris Grayling may have been well intentioned, but his language suggests the judicial system makes exceptions for people with celebrity status.

Chris Grayling may have been well intentioned, but his language suggests the judicial system makes exceptions for people with celebrity status.

Though the problematic elements of the pardon may dilute the value of the act to some degree, the pros far outweigh the cons here.  ‘Lord’ McNally eloquently discouraged the pardon, noting that the pardon was an attempt to “alter the historical context and put right what cannot be put right”.  He is right in that assertion.  This wrong cannot be put right, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to correct it.  Is the pardon enough?  No.  This became clear when Chris Grayling contextualized the pardon as a special circumstance, indicating that Turing deserved to be “remembered… for his fantastic contribution to the war effort” and not being convicted of Gross Indecency, before going onto say that a “pardon from the queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man”.  This language suggests that the pardon was done for the wrong reasons.  A universal pardon is what is in line, for all who were wrongly judged and punished by the government.  Forgiving one man only, and basing his pardon on his exceptionality, sends the wrong message.  It tells people that if they are exceptional, then they deserve to be treated fairly.  Turing’s pardon is a step in the right direction.  It often takes exceptional people to make others see through their biases, and eventually overturn their prejudices.  Turing is one of those exceptional people, but if such pardons are only extended to exceptional people, then the justice system becomes one of privilege, whereas it should serve everybody.  If being exceptional is what earned Turing his pardon, then the likes of Roman Polanski can aspire to be pardoned for raping a 13-year-old girl.  The pardon should be based, not on Turing’s exceptionality, but rather on the basis that convicting him was wrong, and that every person convicted under similar pretenses should have their convictions repealed with an apology issued to any survivors, the families of the victims, as well as to all members of the LGBTQ community.  Turing’s pardon is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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