A True Hero Gets an Apology
September 10th, 2009
There are not many people who have changed the course of political history or impacted the day to day lives of nearly every person on the planet. Alan Mathison Turing did both.
In 1936, two years out of college, Turing presented the paper, On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem. In this, he proposed that a machine could perform mathematical computations if presented as an algorithm. These Turing Machines (in practice, theoretical) were programmable and could replicate the function of any other machine.
During the Second World War, the German superpower communicated by means of an encryption device call the Enigma. With British and other allied sources unable to decrypt communications, Germany was free to engage in warfare that was immediate and reactive.
England found it essential that these codes be conquered and turned to Turing. Turing and his associates at the Government Code and Cypher School created a series of machines that were about to intercept and decrypt Germany’s military messages, an endeavor that was incalculably valuable. Turing even traveled the the United States to work with U.S. Navy cryptanalysts and to assist with the development of secure speech devices.
It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of the Second World War could have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war.
After the war, Turing returned his attention to computing. He extrapolated on his earlier work, presenting papers on how to create a programmable machine – or computer – and on artificial intelligence, among other contributions.
So influential was Turing to your ability to read what I’m writing that he is considered by many to be the father of modern computer science. And the most prestigious award given to contributions to computer science is the A.M. Turing Award.
An appreciative world should have thrown flowers at his feet. But Turing had a flaw that 1950’s western civilization could not find forgivable. Turing was gay.
In January 1952, Turing met a charming young man, Arnold Murray. Murray accepted an invitation to stay the night at Turing’s home, but he had other than amorous motives. During the night, he let in an accomplice to rob the place.
When Turing reported the incident to the police, the investigation revealed that Turing and Murray had a sexual encounter. This being illegal, Turing was convicted under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885.
England found that it’s appreciation for his war efforts on its behalf was far less compelling than its disapproval of his orientation. So his government gave Turing a choice, imprisonment or chemical castration.
After two years of oestrogen hormone injections, during which Turing grew breasts, he ended his life at age 42. And one of the greatest mathematical minds that the world has known ceased to contribute to society.
Today the United Kingdom has apologized.
In an article in the Telegraph, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has penned a tribute to Turing and expressed regret on behalf of the nation.
While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear in conviction.
So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: we’re sorry. You deserved so much better.
Yes. He did.
The Gordon Brown’s statement has also been posted on the Number 10 Downing Street web site, which is the official governmental web site for the office of the Prime Minister:
2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.
Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.
Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.
I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.
But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.
So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.