Monday 6 July 2009

Gary McKinnon

Something quite unaccountable happened today. I crossed off one of the items on the list of "things I never thought I'd do," in between abseiling off the Eiffel Tower and buying tickets for a jazz concert. I signed a petition on the Daily Mail's website.
The petition in question calls on the Home Secretary to drop the extradition case against Gary McKinnon. As many people know, McKinnon faces trial in the United States for hacking into Nasa's computers while searching for evidence of UFOs. Initially he was charged under the Computer Misuse Act, offences which he admitted and expected to be sentenced for in a British court. Then, all of a sudden, the Bush administration decided it would rather make an example of him. Two US states sought his extradition for causing $700,000 worth of damage to computer systems. Prosecutors accused him of perpetrating "the biggest military computer hack of all time " and openly expressed their wish to see him "fry". The rhetoric became more belligerent. Mark Summers, an official representing the US government, told Bow Street magistrates considering his extradition that McKinnon's actions were "intentional and calculated to influence and affect the US government by intimidation and coercion."
Throughout this time, Osama bin Laden was roaming the mountains of Pakistan, unimpeded save by his kidney dialysis machine. Meanwhile, the most powerful nation on earth was hunting down and smoking out a lone unemployed middle-aged hacker, sitting up all night in a suburban house in London looking for aliens, and being so careless about covering his tracks that he left signed messages on the hard drives he infiltrated, sent from his own e-mail address.
There was clearly something not quite right about Gary McKinnon. He quit his job and split up with his girlfriend as his fixation on UFOs deepened. His dope smoking got out of control. He said: "I'd stopped washing at one point. I wasn't looking after myself. I wasn't eating properly. I was sitting around the house in my dressing gown, doing this all night." (see BBC News) In hindsight, it's a wonder he reached the age of 40 before being diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.
There can be little doubt that his disability was a decisive influence on his behaviour. With nothing to temper his obsession, it gradually overwhelmed him. The extradition proceedings should never have come this far. The fact that, having been diagnosed and received counselling, he has come to understand the wrong of what he has done, ought to satisfy any sensible government that he does not pose a threat to global security. He deserves an appropriate punishment for his crimes, but not to be locked away in a foreign country until the end of his days. If the Americans had any sense, they'd give him a job. He'd probably be the most diligent, loyal employee they've ever known.
As for the Daily Mail, it's only six months that the newspaper published this notorious op-ed piece by Carol Sarler suggesting that autistic children should be aborted before birth. Now it's gone from excluding autistic people from its general prohibition on abortion to championing their human rights. The sea change is quite startling, and welcome. They have made a calculated risk that will alienate some of their readers, but no doubt they decided that the opportunity to poke the Home Office with a sharp stick, combined with the chance to support a helpless British man in his struggle against a foreign court, made it a cause worth defending. Credit must go, too, to Gary's mother, Janis Sharp, who has worked tirelessly to maintain the vigil for her son.
It's a distinguishing feature of a humane society that its institutions should be able to deal with the disabled. I still believe that there is a sense of humanity at the core of this government. If Gary McKinnon is extradited, I shall have to accept I was stupid and naive.