The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Posthumous Justice

July 21, 2013

My initial reaction is that this is a spot of good news:

Alan Turing, the Enigma codebreaker who took his own life after being convicted of gross indecency under anti-homosexuality legislation, is to be given a posthumous pardon.

The government signalled on Friday that it is prepared to support a backbench bill that would pardon Turing, who died from cyanide poisoning at the age of 41 in 1954 after he was subjected to “chemical castration”.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, a government whip, told peers that the government would table the third reading of the Alan Turing (statutory pardon) bill at the end of October if no amendments are made. “If nobody tables an amendment to this bill, its supporters can be assured that it will have speedy passage to the House of Commons,” Ahmad said.

Turing’s treatment was just awful, of course. Still, what purpose, exactly, is served by this sort of posthumous justice?

Inasmuch as it involves governments admitting wrongdoing, it might remind us of the fallibility of governments–a useful service, one might argue–and thus reinforce a healthy skepticism in the context of current and future policy. It might provide a way for social institutions to forward–or, at least, reflect–changes in social norms, such as concerning race or, as in Turing’s case, homosexuality. Sometimes posthumous justice provides a way of pushing an institution in one direction or another. Consider the Catholic Church’s exoneration of Galileo, which came two years after then-Cardinal-Ratzinger implied that the Church had been in the right. Under some circumstances, posthumous justice, brings comfort to friends and relatives–and even some redress of the financial, social, and emotional costs of the procedural or substantive injustice involved.

But there are some compelling objections to this sort of thing. Instead of highlighting the fallibility of institutions, it might obscure their ongoing and systematic deficiencies. These might be ones directly implicated in the original miscarriage of justice. Or the redress of the past wrong may simply draw attention away from current scandals. In one way or another, posthumus justice might make contemporaries feel good about themselves… but does that really benefit anyone?

Or, as literalized in Buffy:

Willow : Buffy, this isn’t a western. We’re not at fort…Giles with the cavalry coming to save us. It’s one lonely guy. Oppressed warrior guy who’s just trying to…

Buffy : Kill a lot of people?

Willow : I didn’t say he was right.

Buffy : Will, you know how bad I feel about this. It’s eating me up– (To Anya.) 1/4 Cup of brandy and let it simmer– (To Willow.) But even though it’s hard, we have to end this. Yes, he’s been wronged, And I personally would be ready to apologize–

Spike : Oh, someone put a stake in me.

Xander : You got a lot of volunteers in here.

Spike : I just can’t take all this mamby-pamby boo-hooing about the bloody indians.

Buffy : Uh, the preferred term–

Spike : You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That’s what conquering nations do. It’s what caesar did, and he’s not going around saying, “I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it.” The history of the world isn’t people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.

Buffy : Well, I think the spaniards actually did a lot of– Not that I don’t like spaniards.

Spike : Listen to you. How you gonna fight anyone with that attitude?

Willow : We don’t wanna fight anyone.

Buffy : I just wanna have thanksgiving.

Spike : Heh heh. Yeah…Good luck.

Willow : If we could talk to him–

Spike : You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It’s kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.