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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician and also a genuine war hero, not because he fought in combat, but because he did crucial work for the British government during World War II. Turing broke a number of German codes, including communications that had been scrambled by the Enigma machines. In 1945, King George VI awarded Turing the Order of the British Empire.

In the following years, Turing made numerous contributions to knowledge, including the domain of pattern recognition. Many people consider him the father of computer science. Since 1966, the Association of Computing Machinery has awarded the Turing Award, perhaps the highest distinction in all of computer science, for contributions “of lasting and major technical importance to the computer field.”

Turing was gay, and in 1952, he was convicted of the criminal offense of “gross indecency” for a sexual act with a man. Upon conviction, he was asked to choose between imprisonment or probation, with the latter conditioned on acceptance of hormonal treatment, which would reduce his sex drive. He chose the latter. He lost his security clearance and his consulting position with the UK government. In 1954, he died, almost certainly of suicide.

This week, Queen Elizabeth II pardoned Turing. Justice Minister Chris Grayling, who requested the pardon, said, “Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”

In every decade, it is tempting to look back on previous practices and to wonder how good people could have acquiesced to, or even approved of, a wide range of cruelties and injustices. We tend to marvel at how far we have come. As 2014 begins, and Turing finally stands pardoned, it isn’t so easy to resist that temptation.

But here is an irony and a warning: There is no question that in 1952, many good people acquiesced to or supported Turing’s conviction while also marveling about how far they had come — how the obvious cruelties and injustices of previous ages had been eradicated, and how many of their contemporary questions were difficult ones, without clear answers.

In much of the world, same-sex relations remain a criminal offense. Just last week, the Ugandan legislature passed a law that would impose life imprisonment for homosexual activities. It wasn’t until 2003 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex acts couldn’t be criminalized. Most states continue to forbid same-sex marriages. In other domains, even democratic nations authorize practices that will be seen a few decades from now as cruel and unjust, prompting future generations to ask: How could they have done that?

This week’s long-overdue pardon was a good way to pay tribute to Alan Turing. An even better way would be to scrutinize our own practices with that question in mind.

(Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University professor at Harvard Law School, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the co-author of Nudge and author of Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas, forthcoming in March 2014.)

Photo of Alan Turing statue via Wikimedia Commons

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Copyright 2013 The National Memo
  • The Beech Bums

    Since we cannot know very much about the intricate details of the gadgets, gizmos, and gasoline that we depend upon, we have no choice but to rely upon the liberty of others to produce, deliver, and improve them.

  • leadvillexp

    The pardon is nice but can not change history. Just like slavery in the United States there is no redo. We need to learn from our forefathers mistakes. We should not have to pay for them, but we should work to see they are not repeated. A fitting tribute to him would be for the Queen and the UK to take a strong stand and get the Ugandan government to rescind it’s anti gay laws. We need to get religion and superstition out of everyday life. They are the cause of most of the worlds troubles.

    • Michael Kollmorgen

      It’s not only Uganda that is extremely anti-gay. It’s rearing its ugly head now in India and Australia.

      This all started in Uganda with Christian Missionaries several years ago sticking their noses in where it didn’t belong.

      It would do religion well to stay where it belongs, in the privacy of their homes, in their churches and no where else. It has caused more pain and suffering than any single force on this planet.

      • leadvillexp

        Well said! I agree fully.

  • KDJ54

    Turing’s contribution to the World War II effort is completely understated in this article. His work in cracking the Enigma code, particularly the naval portion of it, saved Britain. Allied shipping losses were horrendous, and Britain was slowly being strangled to death. Once the Enigma codes were broken, the Allies were able to move around German wolf packs and actually engage them before they were able to do damage to allied shipping on a scale that they have been previously used to. Turing’s contribution was nothing short of outstanding. He should have been given a medal along with a pardon.

  • johninPCFL

    Turing’s reach is enormous. With the Von Neumann coputer architecture and Turing’s contributions to programming mechanics, it’s not very far off to say that quite a bit of our modern technologies derived directly from his work. The digital computer, which gave rise to the integrated circuit, with became the microprocessor are all the direct result of his forward thinking. No Turing equals no computers, no cell phones, no video games, no internet, no digial television, no cable or satelite TV.
    Perhaps Phil Robertson should stop being a hypocrite and swear off all these things that derived from the work of a gay man. After all, bestiality may be in the future, but the cell phone is in Phil’s hand right now.