British Members of Parliament Introduce Legislation to Pardon Alan Turing

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Lord Sharkey said, "If my Bill becomes law, as I hope it will, then this will finally go some way towards acknowledging the debt we all owe to Alan Turing and grant him the free pardon he so clearly deserves."

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Steve Parker/Flickr

There is a pretty direct line that runs from Alan Turing's work on the Enigma Code to Britain's victory in World War II. There is also, unfortunately, a direct line from mid-century Britain's anti-gay laws to Turing's personal torture. Following an arrest in 1952 for "acts of gross indecency between adult men," Turing was forced to choose between imprisonment and chemical castration -- estrogen treatments. He chose the latter, and suffered through impotence and depression as a result, which may have led to his death, possibly a suicide, in 1954.

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Regardless of whether Turing did commit suicide, the facts of his persecution are plain and, frankly, shameful for England today. This year marks what would have been Turing's 100th birthday, and, in the midst of the celebrations, commemorations, and symposia on his life, many people have raised the question of what England can do today to symbolically rectify what it did more than 50 years ago. Prime Minister Brown offered a formal apology in 2009 and earlier this year thousands signed a petition requesting Turing's likeness on a £10 note.

But today several members of parliament introduced a bill that would trump all these other measures: Legislation that would formally pardon Turing for his offense.

In announcing the new bill, Liberal Democrat Lord Sharkey said:

Today, this campaign takes a step forward. I have introduced into the House of Lords a Bill which will, if it becomes law, grant a pardon to Dr Turing.

Alan Turing was a truly great Briton. He was the father of computing; his legacy is with us every time anyone uses a computer anywhere in the world.

He also helped save this country. His work on cracking the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park during World War II undoubtedly changed the course of the war and saved many thousands of lives.

But instead of being rewarded by his country, he was cruelly punished and convicted simply for being gay.

If my Bill becomes law, as I hope it will, then this will finally go some way towards acknowledging the debt we all owe to Alan Turing and grant him the free pardon he so clearly deserves.

The Guardian notes that the bill may face opposition "on grounds of precedent and the singling out of Turing largely because of his fame, while less notable victims of past prejudice do not receive the same recompense." According to gay-rights activist Peter Tatchell an estimated 100,000 less-famous British men suffered similar treatment under Britain's anti-gay laws. "Singling out Turing just because he is famous is wrong," he said.

Earlier this year, a petition for such legislation was rebuffed by England's Justice Minister, who said at the time:

A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted.

It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd-particularly poignant 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.

And maybe that is legally true -- that pardons are not ways to excuse wrongful laws. But what better tool is there? We cannot undo the law that once existed, just as we cannot undo its consequences. The point of the pardon is symbolic, and while the value of symbols may seem, at times, wishful or even meaningless, they have value because we give them value, because through the pardon, Parliament says *something*: It says that what England did was wrong, and that the progress England has made is good progress, progress we wish we could extend back through time -- to Alan Turing and the 100,000 other men like him.


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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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