The night Paul LaRuffa was shot five times in cold blood would have been like any other. He had closed up the restaurant and gotten into his car. That’s when “before I could start the car or do anything, the window next to me just exploded and shattered glass all over me with the first shot…And the rest of the shots came in and they all hit me. It was mind boggling. Your world changes in a split second.”
Last week NPR’s Melissa Block interviewed LaRuffa on the tenth anniversary of the deadly “D.C. sniper” attacks that in the fall of 2002 sent a wave of terror across the country, killing 10 people in the D.C. region. LaRuffa was one of the victims who survived a deadly killing spree that by the fall of 2002 had made its way across the country, culminating in a string of murders in the Washington, D.C. area and a dramatic manhunt for the murderers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, LaRuffa “raised up in the seat after it was quiet and I realized I was bleeding, so I held my hand over my chest. I opened the door and I got to my feet and got out and hoped that somebody was there. One of the people I left with was there — walking towards me — and he dialed 911 on his cellphone. They took me to the trauma center; I made it there in time and they saved my life.”
In the month leading up to the arrests of Mohammed and Malvo, LaRuffa “mentally went through hell.” There were the flashbacks and the tormented questions as to his attackers’ motive and whether he was still in danger. When the two killers were finally caught, LaRuffa was able to begin healing from a trauma that would forever scar him.
So why, when the families and loved ones of other victims were present, did LaRuffa not attend Mohammad’s execution by lethal injection in Virginia in 2009?, Block had asked.
LaRuffa’s answer: “From when [Mohammad] was sentenced, I was told that in Virginia it was about a seven-year wait, but I said then I wasn’t going to attend. I wrote a little memo to be read and handed out at the execution. I said I didn’t want him to steal another day of my life, so I didn’t attend…It wouldn’t have made me feel better to watch him die. And I told them in this letter, I said I will enjoy my grandchildren on that night, and I did. We went out to dinner. I wanted to do something happy and nice that night just to show that he wasn’t going to make me miserable for a day, seven years later.”
When someone “strikes you on the right cheek,” Jesus says, “turn to him the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39). The best explanation I’ve heard for Jesus’ words here is this: in Jesus’ time, to hit someone on the right cheek would be to treat them as less than an equal; turning the other cheek would be sending the message that you wanted to be treated like an equal.
But what if “turning the other cheek” is also a way of showing an aggressor that their wrongdoing will not destroy our own focus on what is good and true and brings joy and gives us life? What if it is a way of giving expression to an internal resistance that refuses, like LaRuffa did, to let evil ultimately “steal another day of life”? What if it embodies the apostle Paul’s challenge to think only on those things that ultimately bring life to our own sick souls, even when we have been ravaged or victimized by the careless cruelty of another human being? “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things,” Paul writes (Philippians 4:8).
LaRuffa had dinner with his grandchildren on the night an enemy who had done him grave evil got his just desserts.
LaRuffa “turned the other cheek.”
I confess I’m not there yet. But I want to be. Pray for me.