A Life Forgotten
Alan Turing was a genius. He was a mathematician. He was a code breaker, a war hero, the father of the computer, the brain behind every desktop and hand-held device we have today. Alan Turing was a homosexual.
That last bit of information may seem trivial and even inappropriate. However, the fact that Alan Turing was homosexual is the very reason that you have probably never heard of him.
During World War II, England was losing and losing badly in the North Atlantic. German U-boats were controlling shipping and supply lanes. They were making the waters dangerous, if not impossible to navigate. The reason Germany was able to control the area is because they had a seemingly unbreakable code machine, the Enigma. This machine was a brilliantly designed, elegantly constructed and frustratingly complex device that allowed German U-boats to communicate in code and therefore move about the Atlantic undetected.
Eventually, England was able to obtain an Enigma. However, the brilliance of the Enigma was that its coding and decoding system could be changed at anytime and was changed at irritatingly frequent intervals by the Germans. Britain could receive coded messages through the Enigma, but because they didn’t know that day’s Enigma settings, they couldn’t decipher them. Finally being able to receive the messages was a huge step in the right direction, but they now needed a brilliant mind to figure out how to break the Enigma enigma. Alan Turing proved to be that mind. He developed a forerunner to today’s computer. This machine, called the Bombe, could decipher Enigma messages in a fraction of the time it would take a human with pencil and paper. The Germans were unaware Britain had obtained an Enigma and therefore believed their codes were unbreakable. This fact gave Britain the tactical advantage and it is not an overstatement to say that Alan Turing saved Great Britain from destruction.
For this fact alone, Turing should be remembered and respected as a hero. However, in 1952 he was arrested, tried and convicted of gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which outlawed homosexuality in public or in private. Turing was now considered a risk to national security. There was a common public fear that homosexuals were, by their very nature, vulnerable to entrapment by Soviet spies. At the time of his arrest, Turing was somewhat of a public figure because of his work in various areas of mathematics and computing. His years of groundbreaking work suddenly fell into obscurity. He was given the choice of going to prison or undergoing chemical castration. He chose the latter. This consisted of daily pills, which would eliminate testosterone and increase estrogen. This treatment also affected his mind. He was unable to think clearly or to reason and imagine like he used to.
Unfortunately, like every other person working on confidential war projects, he was bound by the Official Secrets Act, which prohibited one from discussing the work one did during the war. Because of this, people never knew he was a hero. They never knew he turned the tide of the war. They never knew they owed their lives to Alan Turing.
On 8 June, 1953, Turing’s housekeeper found him dead. He had died the previous day of cyanide poisoning. Beside him in bed was a half-eaten apple. (His favorite fairytale was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.) He was cremated and his ashes were spread on the grounds of the crematorium.
Turing’s life reminds us how devastating judgments can be. When we search for and find a fault in someone and then allow that fault to be that person’s defining characteristic, we limit our ability to see the person’s 9,999 great qualities.
We would each do ourselves good if everyday we asked ourselves: If, when I stand before God, he judges me the same way I judged others, will that be good or bad for me?
God sees our lives as entire books, not as individual chapters. Shouldn’t we afford others that same courtesy?
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