There's no more difficult issue for many Americans than capital punishment. For most of my life, I opposed it. I thought the death penalty was wrongbecause it was too easy to make a mistake and execute an innocent person. As a lawyer, I knew the system was fallible.
Furthermore, case studies showed that it's nodeterrent to crime: You could accomplish the samething with "life in prison." If the state exactsblood for a capital offense, I thought, how could wethen discourage violence among others?
Well, several years ago I visited death row inMenard, Illinois, and met John Wayne Gacy, who wasconvicted in 1978 for the grisly murders of at least30 people, whom he'd buried beneath the crawlspace of his Chicago home.
The first thing that shocked me was how ordinary Gacylooked--like a school teacher or a businessman. Thesecond thing was his utter defiance: He was demandinghis rights, still insisting on his innocence, eventhough the evidence that convicted him wasoverwhelming.
I came away wondering if there weren't some caseswhere the only remedy that could produce justice wasexecution, and this sent me back to C. S. Lewis'sclassic essay, "The Humanitarian Theory ofPunishment."
For years, modern psychology has argued that thecriminal is not guilty of crime; he's just sick, andin need of therapy. Lewis argued, however, that thisview strips man of his dignity: It says we're notfree moral agents, responsible for our actions, butrather patients to be manipulated for the good ofsociety.
Lewis wrote, "To be punished, however severely,because we have deserved it, because we 'ought tohave known better,' is to be treated as a humanperson made in God's image." I realized that thiswent right to the heart of a central precept ofJudeo-Christian belief.
The Scriptures teach that people are responsible fortheir own behavior. The object of justice is not torehabilitate or create some new person, likescientists in a Viennese laboratory, but rather tobalance the scales of justice. And sometimes the onlyway to do that is to give the offender his justdesserts: capital punishment. I changed my views onthe issue.
So, I have no difficulty whatsoever with the statecarrying out its sentence in the McVeigh case.McVeigh committed a horrendous crime. He might have been misguided in his understanding of the socialorder, but there's absolutely no excuse for takingthe lives of innocent people in such a senseless actof terrorism.
Just desserts, in some extreme cases, demand extremepunishment. And if there's ever a case where it wasdeserved, it's the Timothy McVeigh case.
Now, the state has no more serious obligation than towield the sword to preserve order. It's a solemnoccasion: 168 people died, and countless lives havebeen shattered. We ought not to be celebrating, orviewing political posturing or commercialism as wehave seen in Terre Haute. We ought to be saddenedthat sin has led us to this point.
So as this sentence is carried out, remember that theexecution of Timothy McVeigh isn't about therapy, orretribution, or getting even.
It's about justice and preserving the dignity of man.