Some of Britain's leading scientists have called on the government to grant a posthumous pardon to Bletchley Park codebreaker Alan Turing. He was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 after acknowledging a sexual relationship with a man.
Professor Stephen Hawking, Astronomer Royal Lord Rees and the Royal Society's Sir Paul Nurse are among 11 signatories to a letter in the Daily Telegraph. They urge David Cameron to "formally forgive this British hero".
Turing was one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the modern era. He led the team of Enigma codebreakers at Bletchley Park, which most historians agree shortened the Second World War. However, at the time of his death - which an inquest recorded as suicide - he was virtually unknown to the public. His work at Bletchley Park was kept secret until 1974.
Back in February the government rejected a call to pardon Turing, when it was presented with an online petition with more than 23,000 signatures. We have to say that the government was absolutely right then, and we hope that they'll stick to their guns now. The proposal is ridiculous, and insults the memory and reputation of an important scientist.
Turing was cruelly and unjustly treated, there is no doubt. But to pardon him would be to say “You did wrong, but we forgive you.” Our point is that he did nothing wrong, and that to forgive him is therefore inappropriate. What was wrong was not Turing but the law of the day. Rather than pardoning someone who suffered under that law, perhaps we should be condemning those who made it?
We have a distressing habit these days of believing that we are both responsible for history, and capable of changing it. It's probably a construct of the media, born of their search for people on whose behalf to take offence. That some 21st Century politician should “apologise” for the slave trade, for instance, is as useless as it is absurd. The politician wasn't responsible for slavery – none of us were. And who benefits or takes comfort from the apology? No one. The only people who give a toss are do-gooders and campaigners who depend on such nonsense to give meaning to their sad, tawdry lives. No doubt those same do-gooders and campaigners will now write in accusing us of being in favour of slavery, logic and intelligence not being among their strong points!
It is fruitless and silly to think that we can change history. OK, the law against being a homosexual is seen today as wrong and cruel. But we can't retrospectively alter its affects or wipe out the injustices it caused.
What will it be next? What other historical figures can we exonerate in the light of our superior attitudes? How about Jesus? - he was unfairly treated, wasn't he? Perhaps we should call for the Bible to be re-written, with Jesus getting 25 hours of community service instead of crucifixion. And banishing Napoleon to exile on Elba – surely that was against his 'uman rights? A nice little ASBO would have done just as well. Should we apologise to him? And what about the very first sinner of all? When Eve took the apple, surely she was doing something we'd all approve of today. After all, an apple was one of her five a day.
And if we can forgive people who are long dead, why not condemn as well? Why aren't we digging up Genghis Khan and putting him on posthumous trial at The Hague?
And to return to Alan Turing, how come we're only calling for him to be pardoned, and not all the other homosexuals who were caught by the same law? Did it not matter about them because they weren't famous scientists? Is that what Stephen Hawking and all those other scientific bigwigs are saying, that scientists are so important and so special that they should be above the law – but sod the bloody hoi poloi?
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