Almost 50 years after his death, Alan Turing is finally pardoned by Queen Elizabeth II. Turing was a pioneer in cryptography (most notably in connection with breaking the WWII Enigma codes) and early computing. He wrote on the possibilities of artificial intelligence, which he expected we would develop within fifty years.
He was also a homosexual, which was criminal in 1950s Britain. He was found guilty of “gross indecency” and chemically castrated for the last few years of his life, until he committed suicide at the age of 41.
On one hand, good for Turing. The idea of such a conviction is highly offensive today.
On the other hand, a lot of people have been found guilty of a lot of horrible things over the years. Are we going to posthumously pardon every homosexual found guilty of gross indecency? What about Anne Boleyn, beheaded by her husband, Henry VIII, for multiple counts of adultery (including with her own brother) that no historian counts as credible? How about everyone found guilty of witchcraft, or heresy, or any number of other things that equally offend us?
And how come only famous people have a chance at such pardons?
The Galileo Precedent
Let’s not forget the pardon of Galileo by Pope John Paul II. I imagine it was meant as a gesture showing the Church’s acceptance of science and humility in admitting a mistake. Instead, I find it almost always coming up in the context of how it took the Church 400 years to correct the mistake. (People will also say it took them 400 years to accept the earth was not the center of the universe, and that’s just outright wrong.)
These gestures do not impress us.
Don’t We Have Better Things to Do?
Can’t we simply accept these things come from a different time, a time we have moved past and are not planning on repeating?
Pardoning dead people is not the worst thing politicians are do with their time. They could simply argue about it instead:
In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology to Mr. Turing, calling his treatment “horrifying” and “utterly unfair.” But Mr. Cameron’s government denied him a pardon last year. (New York Times)
That implies people seriously debated this issue. Really, with everything going on now, you’re debating exactly how much one should or should not apologize for an event 50 years ago? Couldn’t that time and energy have been better spent debating, perhaps, laws relating to homosexuals today?
History doesn’t have do-overs. Does anyone really have a better opinion of Turing today than they did yesterday? Of course not. Pardons are traditionally about the life of the wrongly convicted, but Turing is still dead. No number of pardons is going to change that. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
Acknowledge the past, but live in the present. We can’t relive these issues indefinitely.