Popes, queens and other symbols of power love pardoning sinners and offenders from time to time. The intention is to right a historical wrong. The progress of civilization renders free of taint something that was considered a crime or sin in the past. So, records have to be set straight, and the collective conscience appeased. But pardoning often leaves the pardoner looking grander than the pardoned, if the absurd belatedness of posthumous pardons were overlooked. Yet, there remains something perverse and degrading at the heart of such pardons. The question of pardoning arises only when the pardoner believes that there is something still to be pardoned. So, the logic of this irredeemably unequal gesture is always one step behind the logical, making the tokenism of the pardon look as offensive as the original injustice, in the eyes of those who believe in thinking through such things. Should the pardoner not be seeking the forgiveness of the pardoned, and not the other way round?
The brilliant mathematician, Alan Turing — leading code-breaker during World War II and one of the pioneers of modern computing — has been granted a pardon “under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy” in Britian, more than six decades after he was convicted for “gross indecency” with another man. This was in the early Fifties, when homosexuality between consenting adults was a crime in Britain. To avoid being in jail, Turin agreed to being injected with the female hormone, oestrogen, so that he might be rendered impotent (by the State). He died of cyanide poisoning — probably self-administered — two years after his arrest. “The story of how it all came to be found out is a long and fascinating one,” he wrote a friend, “which I shall have to make into a short story one day.” Turin signs off, “Yours in distress”. But just before that, he pens a syllogism that pithily exposes the brutal absurdity of the judgment against him: “Turing believes machines think/ Turing lies with men/ Therefore machines do not think.” There were around 50,000 others convicted of the same offence in Britain, though none as distinguished as Turing to be pardoned.