Read, Write, Erase

Alan Turing, the man who built the modern world, has been pardoned by royal decree for the crime of being homosexual. Read, write, erase. The great Turing machine of formal history empties out registers, clears his record to blank state, moves to the next state.

Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Turing at Bletchey Park.

From a wonderful and moving essay by Robinson Meyer was published today in The Atlantic, which I highly recommend: 

Last year, on Turing’s centenary, members of parliament introduced legislation to formally pardon him. It did not pass: Parliamentarians decided they could not pardon someone for a crime that person had knowingly committed, even if the government no longer considered the offending act criminal. As Brown wrote in 2009, Turing “was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back.” (After the pardon’s failure, 10,000 people promptly petitioned for Turing to be added to the £10 note.)

Now, Queen Elizabeth II has done what elected officials did not.

The “royal prerogative of mercy,” the formal title for a King or Queen’s pardon, is one of the central affordances of English royalty. Its language is old and pleonastic, comfortable in its somber power.

That makes it all the more stomach-turning to read. “Now Know Ye,” it reads, “that We, in consideration of circumstances humbly represented unto Us, are Graciously pleased to extend Our Grace and Mercy unto the said Alan Mathison Turing and to grant him Our Free Pardon posthumously in respect of the said convictions.”

Perhaps this is standard language, but being “pleased to extend Our Grace and Mercy” feels inadequate in any register. Turing should be forgiven for nothing; he did nothing we’d consider criminal. If any entity requires pardoning, it’s the government. And yet the same government, in the body of its messenger, is pleased to excuse itself.

More to the point, Meyer argues:

According to Buzzfeed’s Jim Waterson, 75,000 men were convicted under the same law as Turing, some 26,000 of whom are still alive. (The law was repealed in 1967.) We might start by pardoning, or apologizing to, all those other men.

Indeed. In fact, it’s a disgrace that this has yet to be done, as the author Charles Stross so eloquently puts it:

The argument being made against this idea, by the former Minister of State for Justice, The Right Honourable Tom McNally, Baron McNally PC, is that you can’t pardon people for doing things they know to be a crime.

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 you can make that argument for a lot of crimes. There are a wide spectrum of laws which have changed and which it would be absurd to pardon people for. We’ve changed the tax code so that things which were tax evasion 40 years ago wouldn’t be today. It would not make sense to pardon people for committing what they knew to be crimes.

But with anti-homosexuality legislation, it is different. We have come to understand that in a far deeper sense, the laws were the crimes. Crimes committed against people like Alan Turing, Oscar Wilde, John Gielgud, and tens of thousands of others. That’s not even counting the suffering it caused the millions who had to live in secret. Those condemned to private sentences of seclusion and lies.

To not pardon convicted homosexuals is like not pardoning people convicted for trying to escape slavery, like not pardoning those who rode on the backs of buses they were not allowed to ride in, not pardoning those who sat at lunch counters. The concept of justice encoded in those laws was not a just one, it was an unjust one. This miserly withholding of justice for the people convicted under unjust laws is itself a crime.

It erodes faith in the ability of the law to deliver justice, since justice could at any time be delivered to these people at no cost to the public. This disrespect for the real injustices, the real cruelty and the real pain suffered by these people deserves so, so much more than a pardon. But at least we owe them that.

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