Geoff Pullum at Language Log. He’s right, I suppose, but this is one of those cases in which any apology at all must be too little, too late. Too late not just for the obvious reason that any apology for this sorry series of events would have been too late after the fact, but also because it can no longer come (or at least does not come) from those directly responsible (Brown was born three years before Turing died). Still.
In an age where (as Language Log has often had occasion to remark) many purported public apologies are just mealy-mouthed expressions of regret (“I’m sorry it all happened”), or grudging self-exculpatory conditionals (“If some people think I shouldn’t have said it, I’m sorry they were upset”), it is good to see a genuine and direct apology for once, addressed (though more than half a century too late) to a man who deserved admiration, gratitude, and respect, but was instead hounded to death. The UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has released a statement regarding the treatment of Alan Turing in the early 1950s, and the operative words are:
…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.
That’s how to say it (ignoring the punctuation error — the missing comma after work): not a bunch of evasive mumbling about how unfortunate it all was, but a simple “We’re sorry.”
Turing did indeed deserve so much better. He created modern theoretical computer science; opened fundamental new areas of mathematical logic; made very important contributions to other areas of mathematics (e.g., the technique known as Good-Turing frequency estimation in statistics); and most importantly, he gave up his academic work during the Second World War to work at Bletchley Park on the extremely difficult task of decrypting German communications encrypted with the Enigma machine. The Bletchley Park team did succeed, and thus the Royal Navy became able to read the content of all the Nazis’ messages to U-boats in the North Atlantic. It was a crucial turning point in the war. But a mere seven years later, a young man shared Turing’s bed for the night in Manchester, and later helped someone burgle the house, and Turing naively reported the theft to the police. The police reaction was to arrest Turing, because they guessed what had been going on. “Gross indecency” was the charge (it is the British legal euphemism for cocksucking). Turing had a choice between serving prison time or agreeing to chemical castration, a medicalized “cure” for his presumed abnormality. He bore the latter for two years and then took cyanide. The way British mid-20th-century sex law drove him to suicide was genuinely something for the country to be ashamed of. It was good to see the official apology (which hundreds of eminent scientists had asked the Prime Minister to express).