Tags: Alan | Turing | code | breaker

Pardon Overdue for Code Breaker

Tuesday, 14 Feb 2012 01:16 PM

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Alan Turing, a mathematical genius, was responsible for breaking the German military code in World War II.

The code was considered unbreakable because of its random selection of code words using the Enigma machine. Turing will be honored worldwide by the marking of the 100th anniversary of his birth this year.

alan_turing.jpg
Alan Turing with two colleagues and a Ferranti computer in 1951
(Getty Images)
The British Royal Mail Service has announced that it will issue a British stamp in his honor this year.

Turing was the lead mathematician at Bletchley Park, Britain, assigned the job of breaking the German code. Breaking the code allowed the allies to substantially reduce the effectiveness of German submarines, which were then sinking the merchant ships delivering supplies from the United States to England during World War II.

Dozens of American ships were torpedoed within sight of the east coast of the United States. Wikipedia has a 21-page salute to Turing. It reported, “In 1999, Time Magazine named Turing as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century for his role in the creation of the modern computer and stated: ‘The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.’”

Turing’s life had been celebrated in a Broadway play which ran from November 1987 to April 1988 entitled “Breaking the Code” in which he was played by Derek Jacoby. I saw the play. It was poignant and brilliant. Those attending learned Turing was homosexual and arrested and convicted for having homosexual sex with a consenting adult, which was then illegal.

As I recall the play, Turing pressed charges against the young man for stealing from Turing’s home and when questioned, freely admitted to the officer that he and the young man had had sex.

For that admission, Turing was charged with and convicted of gross indecency. Wikipedia reports: “In August 2009, John Graham-Cumming started a petition urging the British Government to posthumously apologize to Alan Turing for prosecuting him as a homosexual. The petition received thousands of signatures. Prime Minister Gordon Brown acknowledged the petition, releasing a statement on September 10, 2009 apologizing and describing Turing’s treatment as 'appalling.'”

Wikipedia further reported, “In December 2011, William Jones created an e-petition requesting the British Government pardon Alan Turing for his conviction of 'gross-indecency': ‘We ask the HM Government to grant a pardon to Alan Turing for the conviction of 'gross indecency'. In 1952, he was convicted of 'gross indecency' with another man and was forced to undergo so-called 'organo-therapy' — chemical castration. Two years later, he killed himself with cyanide, aged just 41. Alan Turing was driven to a terrible despair and early death by the nation he'd done so much to save.

"This remains a shame on the UK government and UK history. A pardon can go to some way to healing this damage. It may act as an apology to many of the other gay men, not as well known as Alan Turing, who were subjected to these laws.’ The petition gained over 21,000 signatures, but the request was declined by Lord McNally. ‘A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offense. He would have known that his offense was against the law and that he would be prosecuted. It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offense 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.’”

How did I get interested in this matter, not having known of all of these efforts to posthumously honor Alan Turing?

I was reading The New York Times of Feb. 8 and there in a very small article it was reported, “In the centenary year of his birth, Alan Turing, the British mathematician and cryptanalyst regarded as one of the central figures in the development of the computer and artificial intelligence, has been denied a formal pardon by the government of Prime Minister David Cameron for his conviction in 1952 on charges of homosexuality, then a criminal offense in Britain.

An e-mail petition for a pardon for Mr. Turing, who committed suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple in 1954, when he was 41, has drawn worldwide support from scientists and others.

But Tom McNally, a minister of state for justice, told the House of Lords that the Cameron government stood by the decision of previous governments not to grant a pardon for Mr. Turing’s conviction for gross indecency.

McNally noted that the former prime minister, Gordon Brown, had issued ‘an unequivocal a posthumous apology’ to Mr. Turing in 2009, but he said that Mr. Turing ‘would have known’ that he was committing an offense under the law as it stood at the time.”

This is not justice and should not be the final disposition of this matter.

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