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Alan Turing pardoned… why?

· 29 December 2013 |  by Janantoon
· Published in: English texts · FOCUS · mensenrechten · politieke leugens
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Alan Turing

Give a statutory pardon to Alan Mathison Turing for offences under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 of which he was convicted on 31 March 1952.

by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:–
1 Statutory Pardon of Alan Mathison Turing
(1) Alan Mathison Turing, who was born on 23 June 1912 and died on 8 June 1954, and who was convicted of offences under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (gross indecency between men) at the Quarter Sessions at Knutsford in Cheshire on 31 March 1952, is to be taken to be pardoned for those offences.
(2) This Act does not affect any conviction or sentence or give rise to any right, entitlement or liability, and does not affect the prerogative of mercy.
2 Short title and extent
(1) This Act may be cited as the Alan Turing (Statutory Pardon) Act 2013.
(2) This Act extends to England and Wales.

Bill 124 55/3

Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885

This law was not voted without a struggle. Read the history of the law at Wikipedia. Basically, this law was meant to curb the intolerable trading in young girls in the 19th century. Under the previous law in vigour it was a felony to have ‘carnal knowledge of a girl under the age of ten’, and the age of consent was 12. This looks similar to the Islamic practice — like in Yemen — which we find so horrible. So far so good. But then there was this unsuccessful MP Henry Labouchere who managed to add the infamous Section 11:

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with an other male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted thereof, shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.

In private? Indeed, even in private between consenting adults. Gross indecency? Definition, please. This was Big Brother avant la lettre, and a feast for blackmailers. And apart from that, the law was vague and ambiguous, prone to the prejudices of narrow-minded judges.
This situation lasted until 1967 when the law was repealed in part by the Sexual Offences Act 1967 when homosexual acts were decriminalized in England and Wales, with remaining provisions being deleted later. The ‘offence’ remained on the statute books until the Sexual Offences Act 2003. There is something to be said for a society holding on to its values, if only those values were not so hypocritical.

Public disgrace

While this 1885 law tried to abolish child prostitution, it created a criminal environment for anyone that happened to be a male homosexual (the female equivalent seems to have fallen under the radar). Imagine the fate of a person who did not have the luck to find a permanent and loving partner (like Benjamin Britten and WH Auden) and (a) lacking a safe way (like Parship and such sites) to find such a partner and (b) having normal sexual impulses. For want of a better solution, you had to pick up someone, while always running the risk that this ‘someone’ might be a police officer.
I cannot imagine how many men suffered under these conditions. We only know about the famous ones. Benjamin Britten seems to have been relatively unharmed, although I always interpret Peter Grimes as a reaction to the pressure of ugly gossip. WH Auden went to live in America, and so did Christopher Isherwood. EM Forster was a virgin until middle age and even after his first sexual encounters in Egypt he kept on suffering. The list is long and even longer is the list of those who married a woman to have a decent front for society while being a member of one of the expensive male-only clubs… Another English tradition.


David Leavitt, The Man Who Knew Too MuchThere are two famous victims of this Section 11: Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing. While Oscar Wilde did go to prison, Alan Turing was offered the impossible choice between prison and chemical castration. He chose the latter. The treatment destroyed his sexuality and the process his career. He committed suicide in 1954, days before his 42nd birthday.
Alan Turing’s case was an exemplary one to be taken up by the gay community and in general by broad-minded people. Oscar Wilde seems so remote: 19th century, ‘only’ an artist and Irish to boot. But Alan Turing’s record was impeccable: a first rate scientist, inventor of the computer and in the Second World War a code breaker of the German Enigma Code. Member of the Royal Society and awarded the OBE. A marathon runner. But alas, he happened to be gay.
In August 2009, John Graham-Cumming started a petition urging the British Government to posthumously apologise for Turing’s prosecution as a homosexual. After huge acclaim for this petition the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, issued a statement of apology on 10 September 2009.

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.

Why pardon only Alan Turing?

Apologies, although way too late, were appropriate. But a pardon? Why? What good could it do? Anyway, to celebrate the centenary of his birth, William Jones started an e-petition in which he stated:

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.

Now this is a crooked way of thinking. A pardon (for Alan Turing) may act as an apology to other gay men. Why not petition for (a) an apology to all gay men that suffered under the 1885 law or (b) a pardon for everyone convicted under Section 11 of that law?
Let’s first look at the reception of the petition. The petition gathered 37.404 signatures. Impressive certainly, but short of the necessary 100.000. Justice minister Lord McNally discouraged the activists:

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.

Dura lex, sed lex, right? To further the case, Lord Sharkey introduced a Private Member’s Bill in the House of Lords on 25th July. This proposed bill met with some opposition, in Parliament as in the Government. On 20 July 2013 The Times wrote: Cabinet ministers at war over failure to back Turing pardon. Eventually, some way out of the morass was found and Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, was happy to announce: “A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man”. This is not the point of view of a writer to the editor of The Times: “Sir, The pardoning of Alan Turing is no less than a further insult to the great man. Pardoning implies guilt and it is therefore inappropriate.”

What is the result after all this lobbying? Alan Turing, and he alone, has been pardoned. And although he did not have any offspring the law states — to guarantee against any contingency — that “this Act does not […] give rise to any right, entitlement or liability, and does not affect the prerogative of mercy.”
This is a shrewd precaution, as other victims of the said Section 11 might use this law as a precedent and sue for indemnities if they suffered financial damages due to their conviction.
So, Alan Turing rests even more in peace with the apology he received in 2009 and now the Queen’s pardon. But what about all the other victims?

apology: the word sticks in my throat

It is quite obvious that a pardon for all the victims of the infamous law will never be forthcoming. But why not an apology, like the one Gordon Brow uttered in 2009?
Because, while Lord McNally — it was a law of the time — has a point, an apology on the other hand might have a liberating effect on all parties. Certainly on the victims or relatives of the victims. They might feel comforted by the public statement that their father, grandfather, uncle is no longer seen as a a convicted criminal.
And it might be a healthy reminder for the government and parliament that they can make mistakes. Certainly, one of the biggest mistakes is making moral laws.

But this seems too difficult. The UK managed to make an apology to a distinguished scientist, after a lot of pressure. As for the rest, they seem to be hard-pressed to apologise for past behaviour. And they are just one member of a very, very long list, like:
— Turkey not even acknowledging the Armenian genocide
— Japan doubting the historical fact of the Nanking massacre
— the Belgian royalty forgetting the atrocities in Congo under their forebear Leopold II
— the Vatican wrestling with their extraordinary history, the inquisition, the role in the South-American conquest, their attitude towards the Nazis, etc (they did apologise to Galileo Galilei, after 350 years)
— several South-American governments still do not apology, nor support, relatives of ‘disappeared’ people
— Spain not coming to terms with the Civil War, only seventy years ago
… and so on, and so on.
Why does it seem so difficult to apologise for crimes or mistakes of precursors? Because it would set a standard for their own behaviour?


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