My best friend often says, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
On the face of it, this saying seems pretty sound and moral. But I fundamentally disagree.
I believe that in most cases, turning the other cheek is preferable to heroic action. For example, if the United States had done nothing in Iraq in 2003, the Middle East would very likely be a less evil place today.
My belief that doing nothing in the face of evil is morally justified is put to the test in the thought-provoking documentary “Happy Valley.”
You already know the basic story. In autumn 2011, long time Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested on charges of pedophilia. He would ultimately be convicted and rightly locked up for life like the animal that he is.
Documentarian Amir Bar-Lev understands that Sandusky’s sordid tale is just the background. The real controversy began on Nov. 11 when the school fired head coach Joe Paterno.
Paterno wasn’t just the coach. He made Penn State an institution and a household name. He made sure that the kids he recruited became good men as well as good athletes. Penn State football players had an 87 percent graduation rate – second only to Stanford. But after a half century of service, 409 wins, and 2 national championships, Paterno was unceremoniously fired.
Because it had to come to light that Joe Paterno had abused children, too? Nope. Paterno was fired because he heard a rumor that someone had seen Sandusky in the shower with a boy and Paterno didn’t called the police. Instead, he merely reported the rumor to his superiors at the University and moved on.
Paterno didn’t see the act; he just heard a ghastly rumor. And, like a decent man, he probably didn’t believe it.
I don’t have children and I don’t particularly like spending time with kids. If I see a grown man rough housing with children that he has founded a charity to help, I have two thoughts: either he’s a pedophile or he’s a better man than I am and he is helping the needy and having a good time doing it. I want to believe that he is a good man. And most of the time I’ll be right.
I want to live in a world where people aren’t eager to believe the worst about each other. If a rumor starts going around my office that I go to zoos at night to kidnap baby pandas to bring them to my home to torture, I hope that my coworkers won’t immediately turn against me and get me fired and arrested. I hope they think, “until I actually see some wounded bears in Max’s basement, I’m going to withhold judgement.”
And Paterno and Sandusky weren’t just casual co-workers; they had coached together side by side for decades. If I somehow learned that my best friend was committing terrible crimes, I imagine I’d urge him to stop for the sake of his family. But I wouldn’t call the cops. I would rather tacitly enable evil than send my best friend to prison.
To me, these aren’t ethical dilemmas. I would absolutely rather be a man who minds his own business than a busybody who fails to respect other people’s privacy. And I’d absolutely rather be a good friend at all costs than a turncoat snitch.
To me, Paterno did everything right. “Happy Valley” reminded me that every once in a while, doing the right thing can lead to a lot of wrong.