Hacker News new | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The British Government should apologize to Alan Turing (jgc.org)
78 points by jgrahamc on June 23, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 76 comments

Whether it's Alan Turing, slavery, war crimes, or anything else, the best apology to someone who is dead would be to stop doing the same things to those who are living.

Agreed 100%.

In this instance, the apology is to stop discriminating based on sexuality.

So...you want to remove the added legal protections homosexuals have?

EDIT: No, really? Is that what you want, because that's where the discrimination is.

If you're referring to hate crime legislation that makes it a federal crime to perpetrate crimes against homosexuals, you should know two things:

First, the Matthew Shepard Act that would extend hate crime laws to sexual orientation STILL HASN'T BEEN PASSED. :P It's been stymied under 5 congresses, which you can read about here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Shepard_Act#111th_Congr...

Second, and most importantly, the Matthew Shepard Act does not exclusively protect gays and lesbians. It protects everyone. If some psychotic gay person goes out and starts murdering straight people just because they're straight, that too would be a federal hate crime.

If you want to claim that the law would disproportionately protect gay people, maybe that's because straight people aren't targeted and murdered just because they're straight.

Ever think of that? Jerk.


I do understand and appreciate the argument that murders and crimes should be punished equally, regardless of who the target is.

But hate crime legislation isn't really about the direct victim of the crime being prosecuted.

Hate crime legislation is about crimes committed with particular intent, and as such are about the mindset of the criminal in question, and ability to create a climate of fear amongst a particular group of individuals.

So, yes, we should prosecute all crimes equally. But to deny that hate crimes don't exist, or that they don't have a broader intent, is to deny reality. It is fundamentally different to say "Lets go beat up some fags/chinks/paddies/etc" from saying "Lets go find someone to beat up"


Final note, hate crimes are innately about discrimination. The fact that hate crime legislation recognizes that reality is not creating discrimination. The discrimination already exists out in the populace.

I agree 10,000%. But actually calling someone a jerk takes a bit of legitimacy off of your post. The cluebat is best served cold and dispassionately, IMHO.

Fair enough. I agree in general principle (and the thought occurred to me as i was hitting "reply").

What i don't like is the presumption that homosexuals, or members of minority groups enjoy special favor under the law, when in many cases they do not.

I find more frustrating the fact that people seem to assume that it is law that creates discrimination, and that things would be fine if there were no laws which recognize discrimination.

But it's not the opinion being expressed that i find offensive. People are perfectly entitled to be wrong (and i will dispassionately argue against their incorrectness). What incenses me so, is the presumption, and assertion of opinion as fact. Trying to seize the grounds on which a discussion takes place (which could also be called "framing") is obnoxious/rude/etc and indicates either a serious lack of consideration or an attempt to argue in bad faith.

So i'm sorry to anyone who i pissed off (hee, half-hearted apology), yes the point could have been made w/o the ad hominem. I did however want to indicate my derision, beyond the fact that dude was wrong on the facts.

Ever think of that? Jerk.

What? People are targeted for reasons A, B, C, D all the way up through triple Z. The problem, so obvious that I'm ashamed to even bother typing it, is that A is not morally superior to B, even if the media frames it that way. Group membership should never suddenly allow one's self unequal protection under the law.

But it does, of course. With great, brain-dead righteousness it does.

I'm not sure the american Matthew Shepard Act applies in the UK.

Yes, that's absolutely true.

mynameishere, i believe is an American, and the reference he's making sounds very American.

So in the context of the original post, the Matthew Shepard Act is not relevant. The details of hate crime legislation, and it's application is universal enough to be relevant.

I was in fact referring to the United Kingdom.


The US does have constitutional measures against unequal protection, and so the situation is not so insane here (yet).

Why does it seem that political gays are all about the feds? One would think they'd be in the states rights camp by now and pursuing things at the state level.

That said, hate crimes legislation is a horrible, destructive idea. Any deviation from the idea that we all are equal individuals with the same protection under the law is bound to lead to bad things.

Both are happening. However, basic employment protections are near impossible to gain in some states, such as the deep south.

On hate crimes, however, I disagree. A hate crime is not about targeting one particular individual; it is a terrorist act designed to instill fear in a community. A burning cross, a lynching is to create fear in black people, for example. "Don't date white women" was one in the 60s south. Attacking someone in front of a gay establishment is a clear message to invoke fear of congregation in the gay community.

It's too subjective. With enough imagination and the right judge and lawyer almost anything can be spun into a hate crime. History indicates that would inevitably happen. Look at the ridiculous applications of RICO and Patriot Act.

And it's all pointless. Assaulting people (instilling fear of physical harm) is already a crime. There's just no need to complicate it.

Now, I'm against employment protections period. But if I weren't, I certainly wouldn't want the feds involved. Inviting the federal government into an area has typically proven to get you far from what you want. People should focus on state laws. If you're in a state with laws you don't like, then move.

And leads to a rather tricky league table. Do we all get a peronalised oppression page-rank?

If a one-legged Jewish lesbian punches a blind Muslim nudist veteran which way round is the hate crime?

Which additional legal protections do homosexuals have where you are? (And where are you?)

I don't know about legal advantages, more like social. Consider a hypothetical bar brawl: if a gay guy gets punched, he can throw in hatecrime charges even if no gay slurs were proferred - just because he can. And that is completely acceptable in mainstream Western society, even if running deep against our principles (just punishment). The other way around, no hatecrime is suspected. No such thing as hate against the silent majority.

Note that I'm not insinuating that discrimination against gays does not exist - it does and it's ugly - slurs are thrown around in 99% of bar brawls and they're just the tip of the iceberg.

And his location is probably irrelevant - Western society is so much alike, the variations are much like ripples.

No, no he can't.

You clearly do not understand hate crime legislation.

I am not gay. If the Matthew Shepard Act became law, and someone calls me a fag, and then beats me up, such a case would STILL be prosecutable under hate crime legislation, because of the INTENT, not because of the actual target.

They would be perpetrating a hate crime, because they are trying to beat me up because they think that i am gay, regardless of how good they are at actually determining whether or not i am actually gay.

If someone beats up a gay guy, unless there is SOME evidence that they were beaten up because they were gay, a prosecutor should not be able to bring hate crime charges (this is why we have grand juries after all).

Oh I see - you are right, I was completely missing the essential intent part - mens rea and all that.

Just the fact that I put out such a misunderstanding reveals something - the question is if only about me or if more about society.

Let's be realistic, now. In practice it would afford extra legal weapons to gays.

The whole idea is stupid. Assault and battery is assault and battery. Why the heck complicate things?

Best apology, yes. Doesn't mean it wouldn't be nice to actually say something too.

The British Government has been doing terrible things to many, many people all around the world, for many, many years.

If they start apologizing to people one by one... that'll take a while.

I saw that Benjamin Zepheniah on TV, saying the Monarchy should be abolished because the Royal Family had blessed slave ships.

What he didn't bother to say is that pretty much the entire world (including Africans) participated in the slave trade at that time, and that Britain had taken the lead in the fight to stamp out slavery. The first time in history that former slave-holders had fought to free slaves. Literally fought, with warships blessed by the Royals.

So yeah, we've done some terrible things - but on the whole (even under New Labour) the UK is a powerful force for good in the world, and we deserve credit for that. And we're to "undo" the effects of everything we've done... Well let's say that Zepheniah wouldn't be sitting in an air-conditioned TV studio wearing a handmade suit, hatin'.

You're absolutely right. I just couldn't resist making a very vague reference to the old joke of using machine guns against people armed with kiwis.

Have you ever heard of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged? He had the same mission ... with negative sign.

(Just kidding.)

It's not just the government though. If you asked people at the time if what had been done was correct, how many would have said yes?

Attitudes change (for the better in this case). An apology from a government doesn't change history.

there's some truth to this. As a child I recall being taught that some scientists thought hormones could treat homosexuality, as it was considered an illness.

It's amazing how ignorant we were just 50 years ago, and likely still are :)

What's particularly sad about Turing was that he was such a great war hero. We make movies about famous spies capturing machines behind enemy lines, when the reality was largely Turing and I believe a group of polish refugees slaving away in basements building computers.

Captured machines did play a fair part in the codebreaking!

I would say the saddest thing about Turing related to the Government is simply that his work went absolutely unacknowledged for so long. I actually visited Bletchley Park last weekend and a curator told me of a woman in her late eighties who, even now, had an ingrained attitude of "I can't talk about it". (She was a Wren working at Bletchley).

I think it was thirty years or so before anyone even knew the massive contributions this man had made to our science.

Well, the spies under the direction of England's SOE (special operations executive) spent a lot of their time cutting transmission lines throughout occupied Europe. This was done so the Germans had to broadcast their signals via wireless, allowing Turing and Bletchley Park to intercept and break them much more often.

I highly recommend a book called Between Silk and Cyanide, written by the head of codes (cryptography) of SOE during World War II.

Touching fact regarding the statue in Sackville Park: the sculptor's own personal computer, a 20-year old Amstrad CPC, was buried underneath the statue as the "sacrifice".

The damage has already been done. It is not reversible. Apologies do not mean much usually. They probably mean less than nothing coming from a government.

I agree that they don't mean much, but I wouldn't say "less than nothing." Rather, I'd say they count for "something slightly more than nothing."

If the government of the UK were to apologize, the story of Turing's mistreatment at the hands of the government would fill a news cycle. It's not much, but it's not nothing.

You think that's overdue - the Greek government still hasn't apologised to Socrates!

The British Government should apologize to Alan Turing


The Australian government apologized for the treatment of the indigenous people of Australia.

I think apologies matter a lot. Even though Turing is dead and has no family to apologize too, an apology would make a point about how prejudice warps the world.

Where do you stop?

Obviously what happened to Turing was wrong. But is it better to concentrate on improving things for the future rather than endlessly looking back at the past?

Okay. But how?

Make a speech, invite the press and physically say "Sorry"

Just doing something like Vatican said sorry to Joan of Arc for her death. All it needs is a statement from UK government said "we are sorry for forcing Alan Turing to commit suicide. And we are sorry for cutting short his potential contributions to human being."

Maybe ask Morrissey to hold a memorial concert and play some Derek Jarman's movies.

I like the idea of a spoken apology, but I would prefer that someone non-gay be involved as a figure head. I'm not gay, but I feel very strongly that the treatment of Turing was despicable.

Someone straight needs to be a figure head so that people can't easily dismiss any apology as somehow tied to the agenda of a gay rights group.

No problem for this. And I know a straight figure head is much better for this purpose.

At the other hand. The UK government can always say those standard lame excuses such as "because of cold war, we have to prevent Turing to be used by communists spies".

At the other hand, I wonder why gay right activists ignore Turing's story for a long time. I learned Turing's story pretty early on (I am just always curious of private lives of great minds since I was a kid)

I wonder why gay right activists ignore Turing's story for a long time.

That is fortunate. I wouldn't like Turing to become another archetypal wicked scientist in tv shows puppetry inventory. Compulsive schizophrenic Nash seducing boys, autistic Newton, insane Cantor crawling on the floor whispering "infinty, infinty" are enough for me already.

It'd be far more effective if they funded Bletchley Park, one of the best memorials to Turing (worth a visit, although the information there is woefully light on him if you've read his biography).

It costs a lot to operate and won't be able to run past the next few years without funding, but the Government rejected a petition on the subject (http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/BletchleyPark/)

Support for the National Museum of Computing wouldn't go amiss either.

Do you have a copy of the response?

I wish I did, but afraid not.

Forcing someone to commit suicide? That doesn't compute.

Let us honor Turing's memory without making nonsense of the tough choices he faced.

By saying "we're sorry" and then handing over taxpayer dollars to interest groups. It's amazing that people don't know a racket when they see one. The same crap is happening in the US. Here are some members of congress opposing an apology for slavery:


Those caucus members say the disclaimer is an attempt to stave off reparations claims from the descendants of slaves. "Putting in a disclaimer takes away from the meaning of an apology," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

Yes, the "meaning" of the apology is step 1 in a mass larceny underway. This garbage needs to end. Everyone who actually owns slaves, I really do believe, should apologize for it. Everyone who doesn't own slaves should put their collective middle fingers in the air concerning the matter.

Fair enough:

If my parents owned slaves, and I'd benefited from it, I'd like the disclaimer.

If my parents were slaves, and I'd had trouble because of that, I'd like the reparation.

I don't think either would be a racket. Ultimately it's unlikely a court would extend reparations inmto the present for an event so far in the past, although this does occasionally happen.

Umm, everybody's ancestors were slaves. I hope everyone on this board is really not that soft in the head.


yes atonement is difficult in this case.

A sad story indeed. If I recall correctly from the biography Turing spent time working at Princeton as Alonzo Church had independently produced the same results so it's really the Church-Turing thesis.

Statues and government apologies don't mean squat. The important thing is to never let the story be forgotten.

I see the point about "government apologies", but one good way to make sure the story is never forgotten is to name public structures (roads, schools, etc.) after Turing so that his name is always in the public eye.

My school houses were named after people: James, Cartwright, Francombe, Colston and Canynges. I went there for five years and don't know who any of them were. Next year I'll be living on Sir Henry Parkes Road; I have no idea who he was, either.

Simply naming things after people doesn't tell the public about those people, and I think most people won't bother to research "that guy whose name is on the building". In most cases, it won't be anyone interesting, just a rich person who gave money to fund construction.

I think people thought for a long time on how to save the story, and not only the name, from being forgotten. Apple's original logo was designed as a such tribute.

Or, more accurately, an urban legend about Apple's original logo.

I saw photos of Wozniak ostensibly (?) wearing heart-shaped glasses at the time, that left me with impression the logo could be intentional.

I've read up on this just now and it seems that logo indeed had nothing to do with commemorating Turing's oppression. The rainbow was due to a design trend at the time, Commodore and Atari logos sporting rainbows too.

Homosexuality was illegal in many parts of the world at the time, and it was believed to be morally incorrect by citizens (in most cases), just like how the majority of people see cannabis as a very harmful drug today. So if anything, it should be the world apologising, not the British government alone (whos apology would likely be meaningless anyway, due to the change of power since that time.) The same goes for discrimination against women and blacks.

What's done is done, and thankfully we are now open to the thought that we were wrong in our moral standards. And in a lot of cases, we now fight strongly for the rights of people who were once discriminated against.

To me, an apology is only worth something if the person/people apologising had an opinion which conflicted with the general opinion of the population, otherwise who's to say the victim wouldn't have thought the same if he/she was in the same situation? (i.e. not gay.) That's not to say the general populations' opinion was right, but that it can be massively rub off on your own.

The British Government should apologize to a lot of people..

I see your point, but Peter Andre's actually Australian.

It's not really a good idea is it? The people who perpetrated this are dead, it was under an earlier Government. Further more the whole situation was likely whipped up by the right wing press, Sir John Gielgud's treatment was another appalling example of this. The general populous at the time were not really bothered either way about a person's sexuality.

The best way is to remember him would be to create a large research institution in his honour. Apologizing changes nothing in this instance.

Given the current problems the British government are having holding the country together, an apology to Alan Turing is NOT something I want them to be thinking about.

Don't get me wrong, I am 100% for gay rights, laws against discrimination, etc (my mum is gay, and is 'married' to her partner), but I think priorities should lie in making life worth living for those still with us at this time.

Just googling around, there's a lot of stuff that the British government has to apologize for, but hasn't. Specifically

* Irish Potato Famine

* Acadian Expulsion

I'm sure there's more.

I'm not sure why you're being moderated down. The conditions causing the Potato Famine to have such devastating consequences are known to be a political issue rather than than an ecological one.

Wikipedia has a fairly extensively referenced article on the issue http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_(Ireland). See 'Causes and contributing factors'.

I generally just assume that it's common knowledge that it was genocide by neglect, and was copied and improved upon by Germanic efficiency 80 years later. As evil as the holocaust was, the groundwork was laid by the British (and Canadians/Americans) the century before.

I'm surprised there's so much negativity about this post. Alan Turing made huge contributions to mathematics and philosophy.

But not only that, he was a war hero. How many other people in the 20th century contributed so much to the world on both practical and theoretical levels?

And the British Government drove him to suicide for no good reason.

I think his story deserves far more recognition.

Apologize so that successive generations do not have to continue arguing about whether they should.

OK, appeasement is certainly one solution.

Governments do not even hold themselves responsible for the previous adminstration's fiscal measures let alone the laws that were in place generations ago. Nor should they. The dead are dead. Let's expend our energies on being decent to ourselves, the living.

At the very least we should apologize for the chemical castration! WTF is that? Yeah not good.

Barely on topic, I know, but the slate statue of Turing at Bletchley Park is really cool: http://www.stephenkettle.co.uk/turing.html

Hrm. Alan Turing was definitely a hacker, and so is jgrahamc, but the resulting discussion here isn't particularly hackery...

I scroll down to bottom of these threads just to see where you've reliably complained about them.

Well, then, "hi!". Sometimes I'm at the top of the threads too, because they aren't appropriate:-)

I certainly sympathize, but it isn't always black and white. Even the ultimate arbitrator of appropriateness here jumps into politics from time to time [1]. And hackers are interested in the law for at least a handful of reasons particular to our culture: 1) many hackers are outside of the social mainstream, which puts them at increased risk of majority-oriented persecution, 2) many hackers are reclusive by nature and value their ability to "be left alone," which is at odds with collectivist governments that want everyone to jump on for their latest scheme, and 3) the law is a codified set of rules and procedures, about which hackers can reason, finding incongruencies more readily than the mainstream population.

Perhaps we should pick our battles, and call out more egregious violations such as name calling and thoughtless recitals of canned talking points, rather than engaging in the sort of constant nagging that will just blend into the background noise.

[1] e.g. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=664314

I've never said that these topics aren't interesting - my point is that they are poisonous: they are more likely to set off flame wars, because people are pretty set in their opinions, and that they're likely to attract people who are not hackers yet who are interested in politics/economics/etc... This last point is especially important.

Also, in this case, I was really just making a direct observation of the conversation... it's pretty much all off on a tangent, and is very much 'politics'.

I can't think of anything more insulting than a government that has no interest in science deciding to do a big honoring Turin publicity stunt in the hope of a gain in gay voter support.

There is also considerable doubt that his 'treatment', which had ended a year before, was a cause of his suicide - rather than a feeling that his work wasn't leading anywhere.

...funding a million sterling pounds research institute in his name.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact