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Good Is Good: What Does Male Evil Look Like?

Thursday, November 08, 2012


Tom Matlack is the former CFO of the Providence Journal and is the founder of The Good Men Project, a non-profit charitable corporation based in Rhode Island and dedicated to helping organizations that provide educational, social, financial, and legal support to men and boys at risk.

I was sick yesterday. I spent much of the day alternating between watching Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight and reading No Easy Day, the book written by one of the Navy Seals who killed Bin Laden. In between I took a long nap to try to fight off the sinus infection. And images of evil.

Back when we started The Good Men Project we debated long and hard about the title. We were clear on the fact that goodness was not a destination but an aspiration. Our goal was to foster a conversation, not to preach to anyone.

One thing we never discussed directly, and haven’t often broached, is the nature of male evil. We have certainly talked about rape and bigotry and even suicide. But we’ve tried to find tales of redemption for the worst of the worst, never considering whether in fact in some cases there is no coming back from the dark side.


The quote that stays with me from the film is Alfred telling Batman, “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

I was brought up to see moral ambiguity where others might see sharp lines between good and evil. My parents were protestors against the Vietnam War, against institutionalized racism, against the system. So when guys are sent into a foreign land to liberate and free a people, my antenna goes up.

Who is good and who is evil in this scenario?

I took a break from the tales of heroism and machismo in No Easy Day to read a New Yorker article by Dexter Filkins entitled, “Atonement.”   Lu Lobello is a decorated soldier who fought during initial invasion of Iraq. He fired into what turned out to be a civilian car early on in the initial firefight during battle for Baghdad. His shots killed a father and two sons, innocents, while the rest of the family watched.

The story was about the guilt Lu suffered over this event. He suffered profound post-traumatic stress. Ultimately he knew that he had to make amends. He tracked down the mother and sister of the dead, ultimately finding them on Facebook.  He sent them a video message.  And then arranged to meet them in person to apologize and seek some relief from his agony.

As movingly human as the story was, it didn’t help me answer any of my questions about the nature of good and evil. In a sense both the Iraqi family and Lobello were victims of larger forces that they couldn’t control. Forces that were not good, that is for sure. By naming the situation that trapped them both, the shooter and the family of the deceased, at least they could sooth each other’s pain in some small way.


I suppose my own instinct is to shy away from any pronouncement of ultimate evil even more than I am leery of trying to define male goodness too closely. Hitler was evil. Mass murders are evil. Sexual predators who molest children are evil. But those are realities that I have a very hard time taking into my soul and considering in any real way. It’s too painful and scary.

One of the places this argument becomes most apparent is around the death penalty. One could certainly argue that life without parole is a worse fate than death. And, as ATUL GAWANDE wrote in his piece “Hellhole”, solitary confinement is a form of torture that crushes the soul.

But I just cannot wrap my head around state sponsored killing of even the most despicable prisoner. Maybe that makes me weak or unmanly or incapable of understanding the nature of evil. I don’t know. But it speaks to the moral complexity that I cannot reduce to a simple equation resulting in the death of another man or woman.

This goes for war as well. I am far from an expert on the Middle East. I do not understand what is going on in the various conflicts in Africa. I could not decipher the situation in Korea. I read a little then I get overcome with facts and figures, sects and religious tribes. I know the world is a scary place, and getting scary by the moment. But I have no way to unravel the cause and effect of American involvement.

Perhaps it is my Quaker pacifist parents, but I have found President Obama disappointing when it comes to how we think about United States interests overseas. I may have completely misunderstood what he said during the run up to his win in the last election, but I thought he was in favor of a moderated approach to exerting our military power. If anything, it seems, in the war in Afghanistan, in the use of drones and Special Forces, and the maniacal focus on getting Bin Laden, President Obama has ratcheted up the bloodshed in the name of American-style freedom.

It seems to me that when a more peace-minded candidate takes the Oval Office, the very first security briefing changes everything. The face of evil shows itself with such clarity and danger, that any thought to pursue a course that doesn’t involve killing people goes completely out the window.

I’ve never fought in a war and I’ve never taken the oath as President, so I can’t say what either is really like. But it saddens me to think that the threat of evil has to so overshadow the belief in potential goodness.


My 16 year-old son has his heart set on going to West Point. He wants to serve our country. He is an amazing kid who has already travelled to Haiti and the Dominican Republic to help orphans and those who have literally nothing.

I have just tried to make sure he really understands the magnitude of the decision to serve in the United States military. He does. He knows more about the reality of it than I do, by a lot. Which is all I can ask.

It still scares the shit out of me.  I think of the body bags and Lu Lobello, not just the Navy Seal who wrote No Easy Day.  I know my boy is perhaps the purest representation of goodness I can fathom.  And yet I don’t want him in harm’s way.


I keep coming back to the question of men who just want to watch the world burn.

Part of what made watching the Dark Knight so painful for me was knowing that Heath Ledger died of a drug overdose before the film was even released. It was almost as if going into the nature of evil so deeply and completely was intolerable to his make-up. It literally killed him. Or at least that is my fantasy about it, never having met the man.

There is a way in which every discussion of morality ultimately becomes very personal:  where have I been good and where have I done wrong verging on evil?

The nightmare is a good man who finds  himself doing evil, like Lu Lobello. But my experience is that I can relate to Lobello more than I would like to admit, even if I haven’t killed anyone. And I don’t think I am alone.

I’ve also been haunted recently by the powerful letter of a brilliant young man who could not carry the burden his life as the survivor of abuse.  His words are so rational, understandable even, as he steps off a bridge to his demise—an act of ultimate insanity and gut-wrenching sadness for all involved.

How can that possibly happen? A good kid getting to the point where his only option is death at his own hand.


I am quite sure there is male evil in this world. I just have no idea what to do about it but look avert my eyes and focus on the goodness in hopes that it will overcome the darkness. Maybe that is weak, and unmanly, of me to do. But it’s the only way I know how to handle the moral ambiguity of day-to-day life.

Perhaps the question of male morality ultimately comes down to an issue of faith. I am not a religious man by any stretch.  But I do believe in a loving God.  I believe in the story of Jesus, not literally, but as a metaphor for what it means to suffer in the name of righteousness and the need for each and every one of us to be forgiven for our sins.

I’m not a religious scholar either, but it seems to me that the world’s religions share this concept of Karma, of a life force that is good, of a human fallibility that is to be perfected over time and with humility and atonement.

I suppose its with that in mind that I prefer to keep my eyes focused on the light rather than the darkness, despite that fact that sometimes it requires a steadfastness of spirit to see goodness when your son is going off to war, or a brilliant kid jumps off a bridge, or genocide is a reality.

For more of Tom's works, as well as other pieces on related topics, go to The Good Men Project Magazine online, here.

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