The British government has issued a "royal pardon"
to computer-science pioneer Alan Turing (1912-1954). Turing's work played an important role in the invention of electronic computers, and the machines he helped build during World War II broke the Nazi military codes and helped win the war. Later he was convicted of "gross indecency", as homosexuality was called in law at the time, and sentenced to an experimental "chemical castration" designed to eliminate his sex drive, which also caused bodily disfigurement. After two years of this treatment, he committed suicide by poison (though a few people now claim that his death was an accident or even that he was murdered by British government agents as a security threat). A brief video overview of Turing's case is here
While the gesture is a positive one, there are serious problems with it, as expressed well by British columnist Ally Fogg
. To begin with, a pardon is an official act of forgiveness extended to someone who did something wrong; it falls short of acknowledging that Turing did nothing wrong
, and that indeed it was the British government and system of justice that behaved criminally -- it is the authorities who should be asking Turing for forgiveness, if he still existed to give it. Second, it singles out Turing because he was a genius and a national hero, but those things are not the main reason why the vicious cruelty meted out to him was an injustice. Tens of thousands of ordinary men were convicted and sentenced under the "gross indecency" law during the decades it was in force. The injustice against them, and the criminal guilt of the British state in their cases, was just as great even though they were not famous.
What would be more appropriate would be something like South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- a systematic and detailed review of the persecution and its victims, explicitly acknowledging that the British government, during the time it was enforcing the "gross indecency" law, was guilty of criminal brutality on such a vast scale as to irredeemably taint the entire British state of that era as a criminal enterprise. The fact that as recently as 2011 the Justice Secretary could say that Turing had been "properly convicted" according to the law of the time, and some of the comments
on the linked BBC article, show why something of this magnitude is merited -- and why it will not happen.
Nor does the harm done by the law and by the attitudes behind it lie entirely in the past. As sculptor Glyn Hughes is quoted by the BBC as saying, "if there was a general pardon for men who had been prosecuted for
homosexuality, many of them are still alive and they could get
compensation" -- as well they should, and are still prevented from doing. India's Supreme Court recently upheld
that country's law against homosexuality -- a law which is a legacy of British colonialism.
And the malignancy isn't a uniquely British one. What I've said here holds true for any other country which had and enforced such laws, during the time it enforced them, including the US -- indeed, the last few state laws criminalizing homosexuality were not swept away until 2003 (though by then enforcement had become sporadic), and we know well what attitudes persist among religious hard-liners. To this, the horrific abuses against black Americans in the same era must be added, though on that issue our society has done a far better job of recognizing and renouncing the evil it committed.
Finally, many laws are at least roughly an expression of the character of society at large, especially in a democracy. Had they been asked, many -- perhaps most -- British and Americans in the 1950s would have favored the existence of laws against homosexuality, probably without giving the matter such thought. To that extent, it was the societies of the 1950s, not just the laws, that were tainted with the malignancy rooted in the "traditional values" of the Abrahamic religions.
I can't claim total innocence myself. There were times in the past where I expressed hostile views about homosexuality, though I like to think the last few years of blogging have made up for it.
There are still people who openly aspire to return to the values of the 1950s. Remember what that actually means.
: Martin Robbins has an excellent column