Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Too Late For Turing But Not For Those Who Follow

After some years of campaigning, a posthumous Royal Pardon has been issued to Alan Turing. He was a genius mathematician whose work broke the Nazi Enigma codes and shortened the second world war. He laid the ground for all of modern computing. Without him, you wouldn't have the computer you're reading this on.

He was also gay and after conviction for consensual adult sex he was forced to have brutal hormone treatment. He also lost his security clearance to work on the government projects that were frankly the only things big enough to use his astonishing abilities. He died after eating an apple laced with cyanide, aged just 41.

It is peculiar to give him a pardon, which is usually issued when there is evidence that the person was wrongfully convicted. Turing most certainly did commit his crimes. It is also odd that the government is starting to play a zero-sum game, that if you do cool enough work for the state it'll let you off some sex offences in return.

But something really is different here, not about Turing but about the criminalisation of homosexuality. Turing is not the first to be absolved. One of the very few great things the Con-Dem government has done is allow men convicted of consensual adult gay sex to have their convictions wiped. Thousands of men have had their lives stymied by being branded sex offender for doing things that are now their protected legal right, and since October last year they can get the records erased.

The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 requires the convicted man to apply, rather than proactively trawling the files for convictions to nullify, but even so it's astonishing. I cannot think of another law that, once repealed, gave retrospective pardon to its victims. The rule of law and the principle of obedience are usually regarded as paramount.

So giving Turing a pardon is anomalous, and the trade-off aspect is morally questionable. What happened to him was no more despicable or outrageous than what happened to tens of thousands of other men. Persecution is not tolerable if it only happens to us non-geniuses. But the pardon is actually in keeping with a wider legal framework that reflects a society's growing horror at what was done so recently.

Turing is dead; for those personally affected it is merely symbolic. But it cements the changes that have happened, builds an obstacle to backsliding, and adds conscious momentum to the continuing process of liberation, and for that it is to be welcomed.