Petition to pardon Alan Turing

It’s clearly the right thing to do. But I do find it hugely problematic to focus just on him. What was done to less famous people was equally horrific and we should seek a pardon for all of them.

Here’s the text of the petition:

We ask the HM Government to grant a pardon to Alan Turing for the conviction of ‘gross indecency’. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ with another man and was forced to undergo so-called ‘organo-therapy’ – chemical castration. Two years later, he killed himself with cyanide, aged just 41. Alan Turing was driven to a terrible despair and early death by the nation he’d done so much to save. This remains a shame on the UK government and UK history. A pardon can go to some way to healing this damage. It may act as an apology to many of the other gay men, not as well known as Alan Turing, who were subjected to these laws.

And here’s where to go to sign. (UK citizens or residents only.)

14 thoughts on “Petition to pardon Alan Turing

  1. I think his heroic service during the war, which was not revealed during his sadly shortened life, gives a special reason for public restitution. It was reprehensible for anyone to be treated this way, of course, and I don’t think that point is diminished by treating Turing differently. There is also the purely instrumental value of convincing people through Turing’s example that they ought to treat their LGBT fellow-citizens well. It is a disappointing feature of a lot of rights discourse in the civic sphere that it aims only at toleration and not also at acceptance and love. And public commemorations like this one could be one part of closing that gap, something which seems to me (paradoxically, perhaps) to be essential to securing decent treatment in political contexts where you aren’t focusing on individuals. It’s easy to discriminate against people whom you merely tolerate as a group.

  2. I’m glad someone else find this problematic. I also find the very idea that people convicted for ‘gross indecency’ on the basis of their sexual orientation should be ‘pardoned’ problematic, as the etymology of ‘pardon’ (from the Latin ‘perdonare’ i.e. ‘to forgive’) seems to imply that there is something they should be forgiven for. As far as I’m concerned, it’s HM Government that should ask for forgiveness for (or rather offer a public apology) the way it treated Turing and others for their sexuality.

  3. It is horrific to think how recently we criminalised peoples sexuality, and that we inflicted such extreme punishments, but I agree with Gabriele that a pardon seems unnecessary as it suggests a need for forgiveness, when he and others did nothing wrong.
    Also, there was a petition a few years back that resulted in Gordon Brown issuing an apology:
    “Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. 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 … 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”

    On the other hand its always good to remember these things, and hopefully raise awareness of injustices against the LGBT community that still occur today.

  4. This is interesting. The text of the petition is very weird. It asks for a ‘pardon’ that will ‘act as an apology’. But a pardon and an apology are very different, almost *opposite* speech acts! If what they want to do is apologize (which I take it from Keith above they already did – I don’t know anything about that), then why not do that? I agree with Gabriele and Keith that the language of pardon is troubling, to say the least. In addition to the moral and political problems here, the petition seems to be a mess from the point of view of linguistic pragmatics.

  5. I agree that the language of pardoning is strange in this case, but as I understand it, there’s no other provision for cancelling a criminal conviction, even one prosecuted under laws that have since been repealed. So we are faced with a dilemma, where a pardon seems better than none since otherwise the conviction stands, but it might seem to legitimate the conviction in the first place. At any rate, I wonder whether the thought behind the petition is not to use a pardon as a vehicle for something that not all pardons do, which is to repudiate the legal basis of the conviction and to offer a general apology to Turing and others who were brutalized by the law.

  6. The language of pardon may be troubling, but the pardon has legal effects (though those effects would basically theoretical at this point) that an apology doesn’t. I’d say a pardon is the closest legally cognizable act – probably the only one available in this case – to what the petitioners seem to want if they had a choice. So I wouldn’t let linguistic pragmatics get in the way – what’s wrong with the late Turing getting what little redress is still available to him from the judicial system, as opposed to not getting it? We can always start the petition to remedy the linguistic problem next week. (And while we’re mulling over linguistic pragmatics, I’ll volunteer that what’s technically being requested is an exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. Discuss.)

    A somewhat similar situation came up few years ago when a pardon was granted posthumously to all the British WWI soldiers who were executed for cowardice (which number likely included at least a few shell-shocked boys who lost their minds and fled the trenches), due to modern misgivings about the justice of their convictions.

  7. I think the legal effects are interesting if the person is still alive. In this case, I am not sure that the symbolic creepiness of the pragmatics doesn’t outweigh the symbolic benefits, since it is symbolism all around.

  8. I agree that this is a serious issue and one that troubled me a lot. In the end I came to the view that he ought to be pardoned, not because he was a genius or a war hero, but because these aspects of his life can be used to get him a pardon which logically ought to lead to a blanket pardon for everyone in similar circumstances.

    To see a more complete argument, see my post on The Turing Centenary, here:

  9. Thanks, Nassau Hedron! I read the most recent entry on The Turing Centenary with interest. I think you’re ultimately correct that pardon is historically a (somewhat arbitrarily exercised) royal prerogative and, further, irrelevant to considerations of injustice. It is the injustice of the law that Turing would be “released” from the effects of which gives me pause; I have principled objections to the use of a pardon which would seem to in any way affirm that a government still holds the law was, in itself, legitimate. I find nothing legitimate in the criminalization of homosexual conduct or homosexuality as forms of “gross indecency.” (I know you don’t either, just saying.) I cannot resist recommending to readers the classic by Kathleen Dean Moore, _Pardons: Justice, Mercy, and the Public Interest_, in which she argues for the value of pardons of the innocent. Even there, however, they’re “innocent” of violating a presumably just law; they should be pardoned because they are actually in conformity with the law, and not because they are innocent in the sense that the law is at fault rather than they. I think an apology is far more appropriate than a pardon, since an apology says the state is wrong, not about the facts of the individual’s case, but about what justice requires of the state. Having said all that, of course you’re probably correct that it is in the public interest to pardon Turing.

  10. I had the same problem with this petition. Knowing that Gordon Brown had made a public apology in 2009, I wondered if he had set any sort of pardoning process into motion and stumbled on this:

    “Subsequent to the 2009 apology campaign the UK government introduced legislation that actually does roll back the criminal convictions of gay men. The Protection of Freedoms bill has already passed all stages in the House of Commons, two readings in the House of Lords and enters (this coming Monday) committee stage. That means it’s close to being law.

    Chapter 4 of that Act specifically allows for the disregarding of convictions under the old law that was used against Turing. Once disregarded the law causes their convictions to be deleted. It’s not quite the same thing as a pardon, but its effect is to lift the burden of a criminal record from these living men.”

    This might address some of the concern about a ‘pardon’ being inappropriate. Their convictions being deleted seems closer to saying ‘the state was wrong to convict you’ than ‘you are forgiven for your wrongdoing’.

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