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I meant to publish this a while ago, but didn’t. With the start of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and the worldwide attention on Russia’s extreme anti-gay laws, this post seemed especially appropriate now. I’d also like to thank Tim Schleck for his contributions in the field of knowledge of Alan Turing and the time and effort he spent offering his opinions as I wrote the first draft of this post.
I’m going to write about two seemingly disparate topics. There is a direct link however, to how societies treat their most vulnerable and most vocal citizens. This is not true everywhere, at all times, but it’s pervasive enough that it warrants attention.
Recently, the pardon of Alan Turing made international headlines. On December 24, 2013, after 61 years, Queen Elizabeth II issued a royal pardon for Turing’s crime of homosexuality. This act of pardoning is seen as progressive in some circles because it dovetails with a movement of greater acceptance of homosexuality in the UK (including the recent national legalization of same sex marriage). Others, however, see it as a kind of window dressing.
Alan Turing was a brilliant and visionary pioneer who helped formalize the theoretical underpinnings of computer science. Two of his most well known accomplishments are that of the Turing Machine, a precursor to personal computers, and the Turing Test to measure artificial intelligence. (If you’ve ever seen “Bladerunner”, the test given to the replicants is similar.) The personal accomplishments of Turing’s short life are extensive and have played a critical role in the development of technology in the 20th and 21st centuries. By collaborating on the very first computer that was used to crack encrypted messages generated by the German Enigma machine, Turing played an invaluable part in aiding the UK and the allied powers to victory in World War II.
While the Queen’s gesture is certainly better than nothing, I would argue it’s too little, too late. An opinion writer at CNet seems to agree: http://m.cnet.com/news/alan-turing-gets-royal-pardon-on-homosexuality-crime/57616268 Turing was betrayed by the very government he so expertly aided in its most desperate hour. Government agents stalked and monitored his daily activities, resulting in the revocation of his security clearance, smear campaigns against him, and his eventual trial. He was charged with the then criminal act of homosexuality (called “gross indecency”) for admitting to having sex with a man, for which he was offered the “choice” of jail time or chemical castration. After choosing chemical castration, Turing’s suffering intensified. When he was found dead two years later after biting into a cyanide-laced apple, many people attribute his apparent suicide to his societal and governmental condemnation and subsequent punishment.
The pardon itself is sparse and offers no real apology. While former Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology in 2009, he only did so after bowing to the pressure of an intense internet campaign. Turing was a pivotal man in history, and although the standing of a citizen in society should not determine his or her treatment, it’s instructive when looking at other people who deviate from the norm of who offer value to their societies in a way that challenges convention. The most vocal may also be the most vulnerable, especially in strictly conservative countries.
The number of political prisoners in the world is unknown, but if the hundreds of thousands of documented Syrian prisoners and victims of torture and murder by Bashar al Assad’s government are any indication, holding individuals as political prisoners is not a rare phenomenon. Syria, while in the throes of a civil war, is no anomaly. These are all people who have been put in prisons because they challenged the government in some way. It may have been purely due to their very existence as members of a certain religious or social group seen as a threat that landed them in these hells. In countries such as North Korea, entire families are forced into oppressive labor camps where children are born into lives of captivity for no actual crimes. There are others who speak out against the actions of their governments, courageously trying to inspire more egalitarian and democratic laws in their home nations.
One such example is a Saudi Arabian man named Raif Badawi, who, due to his allegedly seditious activity–blogging about greater freedom in Saudi Arabia–has spent a year in prison, enduring physical and psychological torture. He is being charged with a crime akin to heresy: denying Islam. His punishment? 600 lashes and seven years in prison with another 3 months tacked on for disobeying his parents–an actual crime in Saudi Arabia. He has already been found guilty of various “cyber crimes”. If he’s found guilty of “apostasy”–the official name for the denial of Islam–he will be sentenced to death.
Yes, you read that right. If the 600 lashes themselves don’t kill him, he will then be executed. The idea of heresy in 2014, you ask? What is this, medieval Europe? No, it’s the present day Middle East. Of course, it’s not fair to take a monolithic view of an entire region, but any government that condones corporal punishment and capital punishment–especially for the supposed “crime” of expressing oneself–obviously does not have basic human values as its moral compass. Not beating and killing someone for writing a blog (however seemingly insulting) is not even a progressive stance. This is not an issue of cultural relativism or a so-called “Western value”.
What hope do we have for humanity if we turn a blind eye to such atrocities? These actions occur every day. Far from the exception, they are commonplace. The fact that people like this blogger know the risks of speaking out, and choose to do so anyway, stands as a testament to just how brave they truly are. It also presents a stark contrast with the agents who seek to silence them by the most cruel and permanent means available.
That United States officials have very little to say on the state of political prisoners (particularly those in countries with which the U.S. is a close ally or trade partner) is beyond shameful. It is detrimental to the reputation of the United States, and it gives the signal that countries can get a free pass. There are a plethora of ethical and strategic reasons why those in government positions outside of the offending countries should be doing more. Of course, the United States practices its own forms of cruelty. That doesn’t absolve Americans of the responsibility to do something more to help out fellow human beings anywhere in the world.
After the Olympics end three weeks from now, and the media buzz dies down, try to remember the dismal state of human rights in Russia. Remember how anachronistic the criminalization of Alan Turing’s homosexuality seems, how “gross indecency” was a prosecuted crime. Think about how he was only one of over 100,000 men in the UK to be punished for such a “crime”. Think about how that was over 60 years ago, but today, from Uganda (where you can be killed for being gay) to Saudi Arabia (where you can be killed for attempting to engage in free speech), human rights are not protected universally. We need to be aware, and learn from the horrors of the past. That this horrific backwardness still exists anywhere is unacceptable.