What Does Male Evil Look Like?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. wellokaythen says:

    I think there is such a thing as evil. Of course it’s somewhat subjective, but at the end of the day there are some things that just are. The way people respond to the evil that they and others do is a fundamental question for everyone.

    I’m wondering, though, at the concept of “male evil.” I don’t hear the article saying that men are especially evil, and I don’t see the article saying that the evil men do is worse, so I’m not jumping to that conclusion. But, I wonder what the phrase means. Are there forms of evil that are particularly “male” by definition? (Peeing on the wall of a sacred site as a hate crime?) Or, is it just a reference to some evil actions that tend to be committed more by males than by others?

  2. Tom Matlack says:

    Yeah I don’t know about male evil separate and apart from human evil either, since I admit in the piece that evil in general is a subject I shy away from on purpose. I will say that I can think of more notorious criminals that are men than women. And the topic of this site is men, so just as we are talking about what it means to be a good man I think we ought to consider what it means to be an evil man.

  3. I’ve just recently found this site, and so I don’t have much reading history or much of a sample size, but it seems the article and blog titles here are not meant to inform so much as provoke. In my case they provoke less thought than irritation. I’m thinking of “are men lazy” hanging above a discussion of what women want and need in a long term relationship, or “witholding sex” attached to a reasonable take on the issue of and possible solutions to mismatched libidos, and now this piece that doesn’t really make an argument that evil is particularly male or that there is a male flavor to some evil. So the title seems to belong on a different entry.

    Being done nitpicking, I don’t think evil exists as some force seperate from the people who indulge in or witness it. Same for goodness. People do evil things and people do good things, and often over a lifetime the same person does some of each. Whatever the case I see evil as behavior, and not something that motivates the behavior.

  4. Hunter @Green Detective says:

    Look for tribes of evil, not one isolated soul. One madman’s spark of psychosis unleashes waves of flame on society, insidious destruction. Generations past bore evil tribes in our suburbs and cities.

    Denial and alcohol can’t fight evil. Men need a safe place to expose the damage, grow strong. Rally. In global crisis, men fight to protect women and children, elderly from damage by evil tribes. They blame themselves. They suffer. Women suffer with them in unspoken struggle.

    Men need safe place to break ice, talk through it. Solutions come with cooperation.
    Admire your work. Here to support.

  5. The problem with the concept of evil as described is that in the very near future, we will be in a position to provide drugs to curb and/or eliminate egregious antisocial behavior of the worst kind (i.e. serial killers with no remorse or empathy). The technological bottleneck is the clear identification of the target consumer for the anti-evil drug dose.

  6. I don’t think there is male evil vs. female evil. There is just evil. There were many women in Hitler’s Germany who were rabid Nazis and who assisted Nazi crimes against humanity. Female sociopaths certainly exist, who lack empathy and remorse, who engage in criminal behavior (often financial, but sometimes violent) and who exploit others for their own gain. Men may commit more violent crimes, statistically, but that doesn’t mean there is “male evil” fundamentally different than “female evil.”

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    It’s not the “threat of evil”, but the actuality of evil that causes people to prepare for and to take action against it.
    Pacifists–the real, honest ones–think that there is no excuse, not self-defense, not defense of others, that excuses violence.
    Fortunately for pacifists, there are the rest of us.

  8. Hunter @Green Detective says:

    http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Conviction-in-Semen-in-Water-Bottle-Case-177022601.html

    Porn industry? Sex fantasy alive and kicking, one generation after the next. Bizarre or evil? Comments?

  9. John Anderson says:

    “never considering whether in fact in some cases there is no coming back from the dark side.”

    That’s why I rejected masculism. One of the tenets was every man is redeemable. I don’t want to redeem every man. Mass killers should fry.

  10. Heisenberg says:

    “But I just cannot wrap my head around state sponsored killing of even the most despicable prisoner. Maybe that makes me weak or unmanly…”
    Not at all. Although I do understand and accept killing for utilitarian purposes, I don’t think this makes me any more of a man or equates to any heightened level of fortitude. I don’t think we need to frame our manliness around our reactions to violence and death.

    And, sorry to burst your bubble: I did have the opportunity to work with Heath Ledger for three months. He never struck me as someone who would be impacted so greatly by a role. Rather, he seemed to love the opportunity to inhabit another psyche whilst working. For him, it seemed a rush to be able to do things and act in a way that he never would.

  11. Hank Vandeburgh says:

    Many of them have women helping them. I always think of prople like Ann Coulter. I run a couple of veteran’s pages. The other day, I learned that, as a Democrat, I was also an Islamic communist. When I told her that Islamists hate communists, it shorted her out and she quit the page.

    I sometimes think women can get much crazier when they go bad than men can. I admit that they don’t kill as often.

  12. The Wet One says:

    First of all, is evil gendered? Is there such a thing as “male evil”? I have a problem with that idea. Yeah males do more evil, but it seems to me that males do more of everything other than mothering that any attention is paid to. However, evil is rather more widespread than that and if 1/2 the human race stood up in opposition, there is almost no way that things like the Holocaust could have been perpetrated by men.

    As for the “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” I can sympathize with that and have wondedered about it many times in my days. I have judged the world and found it wanting. I have long considered the question, “If i had the power, would I destroy the world?” I have since found that the question is irrelevant because in the long run, the world of humans will pass away and die. I still stand by my judgment on humanity all the same. Plus, the fact is fire, explosions, destruction and so forth are pretty frickin’ awesome! Could you imagine a supernova in the sky so bright that it lights up the night sky? Now imagine the worlds around that supernova which have been totatally and utterly blasted away. In the energetic death of a solar system, a beautiful thing is created. Let there be light!

    As for the morality of war and the evils perpetrated therein, the moral weight lies with the leaders. Soldiers are mere cogs in the wheel. Due to the nature of war and its uncertainty, collateral damage and friendly fire are inevitable. There is no evil, per se, in this. The evil lies in the reason for unleashing war. Iraq is near, but consider WWII. WWII wasn’t entirely a good war, but it’s a lot more “good” than most. Hitler et. al. were most certainly evil and needed to be stopped. However, consider that the Allies couldn’t be bothered to help the Jews long before the war when Hitler’s evil was well known. Such is the morality of states.

    As far as the morality of war, consider this (you liberal pro Obama types), Obama has murdered U.S. citizens. He has called for their deaths and had them killed without the due process of law. Was this evil? It most certainly was. No matter how bad a bad guy he ordered killed, none of those bad guys have the power of the state. States have killed and will kill more people (rightly or wrongly) than anything else on earth. Obama unleashed the Leviathan in a manner that it ought not be unleashed and contrary to the rule of law. As a result, we are all in greater peril than we were before. His act was unquestionably an evil one. Now, does anyone care? Nope, not a peep. Who’s responsible for that? All I can say is thank god I don’t have to vote for the man or the other idiot who’s running against him.

    As for your son Tom, I would worry less about him being put in harms way and worry about him becoming a tool of evil. I’m lucky to live in a small state with relatively little power. As such, we don’t go around sticking our nose into other people’s business and killing other people for our national interests. The U.S., as a great power, does not have that luxury. The evil committed by the U.S. military are many and many of its actions are done for reasons that have nothing to do with “good” as it is commonly understood. I once wanted to join the military too at age 16, I decided that it would be wiser not to be subject to the whims of the men in office when they have, time and time again, shown themselves to have something other than “good” in mind. Of course, as leaders of countries, “good” is not their highest priority, or even a priority. Interests are. Soldiers aren’t involved in that decision though. They do as they are told, which is their duty.

    I suggest that your son learn more about the politics behind wars. Have him learn the reasons behind every U.S. war in the 20th century (from both sides, not just the American point of view). Then have him decide if he can say “My country right or wrong” or whether he will take a more nuanced approach to joining the military. I have no disrespect for soldiers. Theirs is an honourable profession. However, they are so often ill used by their masters, that I could not be a soldier in good conscience. Others will die by the very nature of my profession. When I know that I will be so poorly used in giving my service, I, for my part, had to decline serving in uniform.

    As for the whole good vs. evil thing, or your last paragraph, just be glad that the whole problem will one day go away. With the end of humanity, evil, more likely than not, goes away. Good probably does too. I suspect that much of the “good” and “evil” that we see in the world is more a product of our minds than a concrete reality of substantive meaning. Some of the evils are mere products of the world we live in and the fact of our material being (rather like a wolf eating a deer. Wolf’s gotta eat and it doesn’t eat grass. People need liebensraum to live). Other aspects of evil I’m not so sure. While it’s always been the case that land was pretty important for people to live and worth fighting over, it’s not clear to me that it was necessary in the fighting to be a cruel and sadistic bastard when committing genocide on your neighbours. Just slit their throats and burn their corpses. No need to inflict terror, cruelty and agony into the mess. See the difference? See the irrelevance of morality? For my part, I do. Thus the world can burn for all I care. It was f**ked from the word go.

    • John Anderson says:

      “First of all, is evil gendered? Is there such a thing as “male evil”? I have a problem with that idea. Yeah males do more evil, but it seems to me that males do more of everything other than mothering that any attention is paid to.”

      I don’t think evil is gendered either. I would hesitate to say that even “types” of evil is gendered. Women rape and kill also. If you look at the DOJ stats, about half of the prison rape is perpetrated by women. Male prisoner on prisoner rape is a third of the rate of women on women prisoner rape. Staff prison rape is almost 80% female staff on male prisoner. Prisoners and staff each perpetrate about half the rapes. The only reason male perpetrated sexual assault in prison is even close is because the overwhelming majority of prisoners are male.

      Do women have a much larger propensity than men to abuse those weaker than themselves? In a discussion on gender, I remember pointing out that public spaces are no more hospitable to men than women. Men are killed at 4 times the rate of women. Men simply partake of public spaces despite the risk. I think you see this in the incidence of violent crime and mass killings. When someone commits a violent crime, there is the possibility of getting a violent response from law enforcement. The perpetrator can die in a shootout. A mass killing will ultimately result in death in the overwhelming number of cases whether the perpetrator is killed at the scene or after the trial.

      You see the value placed on one’s personal life in the rates of suicide. Men commit suicide at 4 times the rate of women. When women commit sexual violence in prison, they have no expectation that their victim can reciprocate violently. They also have a strong expectation that they won’t get caught and punished and their punishment if caught would not be severe at least not resulting in death.

  13. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Well, I’m not voting for Obama, just so you know. And not Romney either. He’s an even bigger liar. Obama doesn’t get my vote for deserting troops under fire. I, for one, am not a liberal. I’m some combination of libetarian (micro) and socialist (macro.)

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