BreakPoint with Charles Colson is reprinted with permission.

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 wrong because it was too easy to make a mistake and execute an innocent person. As a lawyer, I knew the system was fallible.

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  • Furthermore, case studies showed that it's no deterrent to crime: You could accomplish the same thing with "life in prison." If the state exacts blood for a capital offense, I thought, how could we then discourage violence among others?

    Well, several years ago I visited death row in Menard, Illinois, and met John Wayne Gacy, who was convicted in 1978 for the grisly murders of at least 30 people, whom he'd buried beneath the crawl space of his Chicago home.

    The first thing that shocked me was how ordinary Gacy looked--like a school teacher or a businessman. The second thing was his utter defiance: He was demanding his rights, still insisting on his innocence, even though the evidence that convicted him was overwhelming.

    I came away wondering if there weren't some cases where the only remedy that could produce justice was execution, and this sent me back to C. S. Lewis's classic essay, "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment."

    For years, modern psychology has argued that the criminal is not guilty of crime; he's just sick, and in need of therapy. Lewis argued, however, that this view strips man of his dignity: It says we're not free moral agents, responsible for our actions, but rather patients to be manipulated for the good of society.

    Lewis wrote, "To be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we 'ought to have known better,' is to be treated as a human person made in God's image." I realized that this went right to the heart of a central precept of Judeo-Christian belief.

    The Scriptures teach that people are responsible for their own behavior. The object of justice is not to rehabilitate or create some new person, like scientists in a Viennese laboratory, but rather to balance the scales of justice. And sometimes the only way to do that is to give the offender his just desserts: capital punishment. I changed my views on the issue.

    So, I have no difficulty whatsoever with the state carrying out its sentence in the McVeigh case. McVeigh committed a horrendous crime. He might have been misguided in his understanding of the social order, but there's absolutely no excuse for taking the lives of innocent people in such a senseless act of terrorism.

    Just desserts, in some extreme cases, demand extreme punishment. And if there's ever a case where it was deserved, it's the Timothy McVeigh case.

    Now, the state has no more serious obligation than to wield the sword to preserve order. It's a solemn occasion: 168 people died, and countless lives have been shattered. We ought not to be celebrating, or viewing political posturing or commercialism as we have seen in Terre Haute. We ought to be saddened that sin has led us to this point.

    So as this sentence is carried out, remember that the execution of Timothy McVeigh isn't about therapy, or retribution, or getting even.

    It's about justice and preserving the dignity of man.

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