Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Posthumous Pardons

Not to be a negative nelly about what is, on one level, good news, but why is only Alan Turing getting a pardon? Sure, Turing' sentence of chemical castration (in lieu of prison) and his loss of security clearance for the offense of homosexuality would be considered "unjust and discriminatory" today. But any criminal penalty for homosexuality would be too. So what about everyone else who was ever convicted with that offense? What about Oscar Wilde? Or more importantly, what about the unknown number of non-famous people who were convicted as homosexuals? If Turing's penalty is unjust, so is theirs.

Actually, my real issue is with the concept of posthumous pardons. I get the idea, we want the government to be able to rectify a past wrong even if the victim of that wrong has died. But there are tons of things that were criminal in the past that the penalties for which would strike the modern person as something that should not have been penalized. What about everyone who was ever convicted under the Fugitive Slave Act? Frankly, it makes more sense to me to recognize that stuff as part of our history without trying to retroactively smooth away the rough edges of our collective past with a posthumous pardon.

Yes, Turing's conviction was a terrible injustice (just as other convictions under that law were). But it happened. It ruined Turing's life and led him to commit suicide two years later. Pardoning him now isn't going to un-ruin his life or bring him back. It might make the British government feel better about its treatment of Turing. But do they deserve to feel better? Their history is their history. They should learn from their past and try to do better in the future. Posthumous pardons are often just a gesture to give the illusion that the past can be corrected. It can't. Life is hard that way.

The only time I can really get behind a posthumous pardon is when there is some benefit to someone who is currently alive. So if, for example, Turing's family lost some survivor's pension benefit because that conviction is on the record, then I would support a pardon to get them the benefits they deserve. I don't think that kind of present-day benefit applies in the Turing case, so I say they should have let his conviction alone, so it could remain in the historical record as the stain that it deserves to be.