Thank You, Alan Turing

Alan Turing

How do you like your computer gadgets – your iPad, your laptop, your smart phone?

How do you like living under a democracy instead of a dictatorial Nazism?

We can thank Alan Turing for both.

Alan Turing, Ph.D in Mathematics, was a logician, cryptanalyst, code-breaking phenom and marathon runner.

He is considered the father of the modern computer. Time Magazine had this to say about him, “The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.”

He was considered by Prime Minister Winston Churchill as the one who made the single-biggest contribution to the Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.

He never fired a shot.

Here’s how he did it.

As a member of a secret British counterintelligence team during WW2, Alan Turing developed a method of cracking the previously unbreakable Nazi codes –a revolution that shortened the war by an estimated two years and saved thousands of lives.

A hero. But unrecognized.

Did you catch the word “secret”?

The Allies kept the work of Turing’s team a secret. The documents weren’t declassified until the 1970s.

There was another secret. Alan Turing was gay. Some knew. Most did not. In England at that time being gay was a crime. In 1952 Turing was arrested and charged with “gross indecency” under the Victorian-era Criminal Law Amendment Act, once used to imprison Oscar Wilde. Turing’s punishment came during a backlash against gays, a “drive against male vice” the Home Secretary enacted to “rid England of this plague.”

His punishment? Chemical castration. He was injected with female hormones designed to suppress his libido. It did more than that. It destroyed his athletic build, affected his mind, and, according to one biographer, set the genius on a “slow, sad descent into grief and madness.”

The descent led Turing, on June 7, 1954, to kill himself by taking a bite of a cyanide-laced apple. It was two weeks shy of his 42nd birthday.

Now there is The Imitation Game – a movie about Alan Turing.

My wife and I watched it last night. I had never heard of it until this year’s Academy Awards Show at which writer Graham Moore received the Oscar for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay.

We cried. Not unusual for me. But for my wife, it is. She is emotionally tougher than I.

We cried for Alan Turing.

We cried for others, friends of ours, who have experienced discrimination.

We cried for those who discriminate – also friends of ours.

We cried for a culture that has difficulty grasping and practicing “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

In September, 2009, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing: “Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. So 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.”

 Parliament brought up a bill of “pardon” in 2013, and on Christmas Eve, 2013, Queen Elizabeth granted Turing pardon posthumously.

Too little too late? I think so. But, I learn something in the title of the Paul Billheimer’s book, Don’t Waste Your Sorrows. Let’s use history to learn to improve the present.

A lesson on hypocrisy. Do you think it’s a bit ironic that a man so instrumental in bringing down Nazism, an oppressive regime, intolerant of any form of difference was himself a victim of laws that criminalized homosexuality.

A lesson on prejudice. Until this movie, I had not heard of Alan Turing. How about you? If he had not been gay, might his name have been a household name like Einstein or Galileo?   How do we explain that a person who did so much is known by so few?

We pay a high price for prejudice.

Turing’s old colleague at Bletchley Park (the lab where the German code was broken), Professor Jack Good, who died in 2009 at the age of 92 made this observation: it “was a good thing the authorities hadn’t known Turing was a homosexual during the war, because if they had, they would have fired him – and we would have lost.”

Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Turing in the movie, said, “It’s not an isolated moment in history. It’s a lesson and a warning that our prejudices can still rise and destroy those who are fragile, different and can make an incredible difference in our lives. We differentiate between what’s us and what’s them at our own peril – orientation, religion, creed.”

I wonder what other discoveries and inventions Alan Turing would have made had his life not been cut short by discrimination.

What do you think of the way Alan Turing was treated?

I can’t imagine even the most adamant opponent of homosexuality today being “ok” with how Alan Turing was treated. Well, maybe I can. But, for the most part, people would not condone, if not condemn, the criminalization of homosexuality (Homosexuality was decriminalized in England in 1967 and in the United States in 2003).   Culture has moved toward a better ethic.

Even the Christian community has moved from:

*“It’s a choice and an abomination,” to

*”It’s hard to change orientation but it can be done through God’s power and spiritual disciplines,” to

*“While the orientation may be unchangeable acting on it is a choice, so people can choose to live a celibate life or a heterosexual life.”

The movement of the Christian community is heard in these words by Dr. Albert Mohler, spoken at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission conference last fall: “One of the things we should not be embarrassed to say is that we are learning…Now early in this controversy, I felt it quite necessary…to deny anything like a sexual orientation…I repent of that.”

“We are learning.”

Is it possible that something we learn today can disprove what we learned yesterday?

“Repent” A strong word. A Bible word. It literally means “to change one’s mind – to go the opposite direction.”

Is it possible that previously held views are so wrong that we must “repent” of them?

Some in the Christian community have moved to an understanding that none of the Scriptures that prohibit same-sex behavior apply to modern-day monogamous, committed gay relationships.

The movement toward a better ethic is good. Let’s continue to learn.  Let’s repent when we’re wrong.  Let’s pursue an ethic that reflects Jesus.

Yes, thank you Alan Turing.

For freedom. For our gadgets. For the lessons we learn from your life.