What do we know about mass murder?; what do we know about the philosophy of justice?; and how do we go about dealing with evidence?

At a recent post, I’ve added, at the bottom of the text, a series of comments that will work well as a separate post.

A previous post deals with laneway housing in Toronto. The screenshot is from Google Maps, posted in March 18, 2021 Daily Hive article entitled: “A brief history of Toronto’s laneway houses and how they came to be.”

In the comments I note that, given a writing project that I’ve been working on the past couple of years, I’ve become interested in looking at things from the perspective of land use – in terms of specific local cases such as laneway housing and, with equal interest, in more general, more abstract terms.

Evolutionary biology

In that context, I’ve been reading intensively – all the while while keeping closely in mind the concept of land use decision making – about a wide range of topics including, by way of example, evolutionary biology.

A book I’ve found really interesting to encounter is The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World (2021) by Nichola Raihani.

A blurb reads:

Cooperation is the means by which life arose in the first place. It’s how we progressed through scale and complexity, from free-floating strands of genetic material, to nation states. But given what we know about the mechanisms of evolution, cooperation is also something of a puzzle. How does cooperation begin, when on a Darwinian level, all that the genes in your body care about is being passed on to the next generation? Why do meerkat colonies care for one another’s children? Why do babbler birds in the Kalahari form colonies in which only a single pair breeds? And how come some coral wrasse fish actually punish each other for harming fish from another species?

A biologist by training, Raihani looks at where and how collaborative behavior emerges throughout the animal kingdom, and what problems it solves. She reveals that the species that exhibit cooperative behavior – teaching, helping, grooming, and self-sacrifice – most similar to our own tend not to be other apes; they are birds, insects, and fish, occupying far more distant branches of the evolutionary tree. By understanding the problems they face, and how they cooperate to solve them, we can glimpse how human cooperation first evolved. And we can also understand what it is about the way we cooperate that has made humans so distinctive – and so successful.

At the above-noted link, you can find additional reviews and other information – all of it of much interest.

What’s next in the United States?

The concept of land use is of relevance with regard to evolutionary history along with other facets of history such as geological, political, social, and economic history among a vast array of other facets.

A related concept is space use – again, at both the concrete and the metaphorical levels.

When I speak of history I also think of historiography – that is, about how history is constructed, which depends on who is doing the constructing, and who the intended audience happens to be.

In that context, I was interested to read, at the Toronto Public Library website, a Dec. 31, 2021 Globe and Mail article by Thomas Homer-Dixon.

We are dealing, in this article as elsewhere, with land use – and with space use. In the latter case, we are also dealing  with what is happening within our brains and minds (minds being embodied within bodies, networks, and structures) as we seek to make sense of what we see, hear, and otherwise experience.

The article is entitled: “The American polity is cracked, and might collapse. Canada must prepare: The U.S. is becoming increasingly ungovernable, and some experts believe it could descend into civil war. What should Canada do then?”

Thomas Homer-Dixon is executive director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University. His latest book is Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril (2020).

An excerpt from the Globe and Mail article reads:

But one can’t blame only Mr. Limbaugh, who died in early 2021, and his ilk for America’s dysfunction. These people and their actions are as much symptoms of that dysfunction as its root causes, and those causes are many. Some can be traced to the country’s founding – to an abiding distrust in government baked into the country’s political culture during the Revolution, to slavery, to the political compromise of the Electoral College that slavery spawned, to the overrepresentation of rural voting power in the Senate, and to the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War. But successful polities around the world have overcome flaws just as fundamental.

What seems to have pushed the United States to the brink of losing its democracy today is a multiplication effect between its underlying flaws and recent shifts in the society’s “material” characteristics. These shifts include stagnating middle-class incomes, chronic economic insecurity, and rising inequality as the country’s economy – transformed by technological change and globalization – has transitioned from muscle power, heavy industry, and manufacturing as the main sources of its wealth to idea power, information technology, symbolic production and finance. As returns to labour have stagnated and returns to capital have soared, much of the U.S. population has fallen behind. Inflation-adjusted wages for the median male worker in the fourth quarter of 2019 (prior to the infusion of economic support owing to the COVID-19 pandemic) were lower than in 1979; meanwhile, between 1978 and 2016, CEO incomes in the biggest companies rose from 30 times that of the average worker to 271 times. Economic insecurity is widespread in broad swaths of the country’s interior, while growth is increasingly concentrated in a dozen or so metropolitan centres.

Two other material factors are key. The first is demographic: as immigration, aging, intermarriage and a decline in church-going have reduced the percentage of non-Hispanic white Christians in America, right-wing ideologues have inflamed fears that traditional U.S. culture is being erased and whites are being “replaced.” The second is pervasive elite selfishness: The wealthy and powerful in America are broadly unwilling to pay the taxes, invest in the public services, or create the avenues for vertical mobility that would lessen their country’s economic, educational, racial and geographic gaps. The more an under-resourced government can’t solve everyday problems, the more people give up on it, and the more they turn to their own resources and their narrow identity groups for safety.

America’s economic, racial and social gaps have helped cause ideological polarization between the political right and left, and the worsening polarization has paralyzed government while aggravating the gaps. The political right and left are isolated from, and increasingly despise, each other. Both believe the stakes are existential – that the other is out to destroy the country they love. The moderate political centre is fast vanishing.

And, oh yes, the population is armed to the teeth, with somewhere around 400 million firearms in the hands of civilians.

Stories from behind the Berlin Wall

Another aspect of land use decision making concerns the history of Europe before, during, and after the Second World War.

By way of example, I’ve been interested in how interviews and archival resources have been put to use in quite different ways in accounts about events in Europe before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I’ve come across two books about the Stasi police of the former East Germany. Each deals with evidence; each makes a contribution to a reader’s understanding of the postwar era.

One of the books is called Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (2003) by Anna Funder.

A Book List Review at the Toronto Public Library website reads:

During its 40-year history, the German Democratic Republic – East Germany – was, with Soviet assistance, the perfect police state. The organ of surveillance within the GDR (as well as foreign intelligence activities) was the Stasi, which, better than any other modern secret police, had organized a large army of citizen informers. Australian writer Funder thoroughly documents that culture of domestic spying and its effects on a cross-section of East German society. To call the stories that she relates as Orwellian is rather an understatement; the fact that they are true alone goes beyond Orwell: the mysterious death of a husband while in detention, the sudden “nonexistence” of a rock star, a mother’s separation from her critically ill infant. What the reader learns from these stories is that evil swings like a pendulum, from the banal to the surreal, but no matter where it is in the spectrum, it always leaves pain behind. –Frank Caso
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

A second study is entitled: The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi (2010) by Gary Bruce.

A blurb reads:

Based on previously classified documents and on interviews with former secret police officers and ordinary citizens, The Firm is the first comprehensive history of East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, at the grassroots level. Focusing on Gransee and Perleberg, two East German districts located north of Berlin, Gary Bruce reveals how the Stasi monitored small-town East Germany. He paints an eminently human portrait of those involved with this repressive arm of the government, featuring interviews with former officers that uncover a wide array of personalities, from devoted ideologues to reluctant opportunists, most of whom talked frankly about East Germany’s obsession with surveillance. Their paths after the collapse of Communism are gripping stories of resurrection and despair, of renewal and demise, of remorse and continued adherence to the movement. The book also sheds much light on the role of the informant, the Stasi’s most important tool in these out-of-the-way areas. Providing on-the-ground empirical evidence of how the Stasi operated on a day-to-day basis with ordinary people, this remarkable volume offers an unparalleled picture of life in a totalitarian state.

What do we know about dealing with evidence?

Four other books of much interest are the following ones, which deal with what we know about the Second World War; what we know about the philosophy of justice; and how we go about dealing with evidence. [1, 2]

1. Ordinary People as Mass Murderers: Perpetrators in Comparative Perspective (2008) edited by Olaf Jensen and Claus-Christian W. Szejnmann.

2. Empire of Destruction: A History of Nazi Mass Killing (2021) by Alex J. Kay.

3. On Justice: Philosophy, History, Foundations (2020) by Mathias Rise.

4. Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us (2017) by Sara E. Gorman and Jack M. Gorman.

4 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 1

    An overriding message from what I have read in studies of ‘ordinary people as mass killers’ concerns the fact that ordinary persons, in the act of repeatedly committing mass murder now and in the past, tend to be convinced – as the direct outcome of a series of coalescing circumstances, in which their own acquiescence and initiative play a determinant role as described in recent historical analyses – that what they are doing is apt, ‘morally defensible,’ and ‘the right thing to do, however difficult the doing of it may be.’

    The decisive matter in the history of the Second World War was the military outcome. Nazi Germany lost the war that it had, with strong determination, initiated.

    After the Second World War, the people involved with mass murder in most cases settled without a lot of overwhelming difficulty back into civilian life. During the early postwar era, before intensive, archives-based and other forms of research began in subsequent decades in Germany and elsewhere, it was common for the perpetrators to be positioned, without evidence to back up such a claim, as being themselves the ‘victims’ of a small core of Nazi Germany’s prewar and wartime leadership.

    The history of the postwar era is of interest for any person who seeks to better understand the past. The ongoing study of relevant, newly-opened archives and other source material continues to provide vast amounts of valuable information.

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 2

    Storytelling, power relations, and land use are inextricably tied up together.

    The larger theme concerns the language that power sometimes speaks whereby up is down, big is small, and in is out. It’s in the nature of power that, at times, it is capable of using language as it sees fit.

    That’s an insight that has occurred to me over the past decade based on anecdotal observations regarding land use decision making when I lived in Toronto.

    Such insight has been evocatively and forcefully articulated by a wide range of writers.

    A passage (p. 170) in Chapter 8, “Life Stories,” in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (2012) by Jonathan Gottschall echoes themes addressed in Note 1:


    In view of memory’s frailties, omissions, and inventions, some researchers have concluded that it just doesn’t work very well. But, as the psychologist Jerome Bruner observes, memory may “serve many masters aside from truth.” If the purpose of memory is to provide a photo-perfect record of the past, then memory is deeply flawed. But if the purpose of memory is to allow us to live better lives, then the plasticity of memory may actually be useful. Memory may be faulty by design.
    As the psychologists Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson put it, memory is an “unreliable, self-serving historian … Mem­ories are often pruned and shaped by an ego-enhancing bias that blurs the edges of past events, softens culpability, and dis­torts what really happened.” Put differently, we misremember the past in a way that allows us to maintain protagonist status in the stories of our own lives.

    Even truly awful people usually don’t know that they are antagonists. Hitler, for example, thought he was a brave knight who would vanquish evil and bring on a thousand years of paradise on earth. What Stephen King wrote about the villain in his novel Misery applies to real villains as well: “Annie Wilkes, the nurse who holds Paul Sheldon prisoner in Misery, may seem psychopathic to us, but it’s important to remember that she seems perfectly sane and reasonable to herself – heroic, in fact, a beleaguered woman trying to sur­vive in a hostile world filled with cockadoodie brats.” Studies show that when ordinary people do something wrong – break a promise, commit a murder – they usually fold it into a nar­rative that denies or at least diminishes their guilt. This self­ exculpatory tendency is so powerful in human life that Steven Pinker calls it the “Great Hypocrisy.”

    A blurb for The Storytelling Animal (2012) reads:

    Humans live in landscapes of make-believe. We spin fantasies. We devour novels, films, and plays. Even sporting events and criminal trials unfold as narratives. Yet the world of story has long remained an undiscovered and unmapped country. It’s easy to say that humans are “wired” for story, but why? In this delightful and original book, Jonathan Gottschall offers the first unified theory of storytelling. He argues that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems – just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. Storytelling has evolved, like other behaviors, to ensure our survival.

    Books about writing

    Stephen King has written a valuable book about writing: On writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2020).

    A blurb reads:

    Immensely helpful and illuminating to any aspiring writer, this special edition of Stephen King’s critically lauded, million-copy bestseller shares the experiences, habits, and convictions that have shaped him and his work. “Long live the King” hailed Entertainment Weekly upon publication of Stephen King’s On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.

    Another useful resource is The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses. Dissertations, and Books (1999) by Eviatar Zerubavel.

    A blurb reads:

    For anyone who has blanched at the uphill prospect of finishing a long piece of writing, this book holds out something more practical than hope: it offers a plan. The Clockwork Muse is designed to help prospective authors develop a workable timetable for completing long and often formidable projects.

    The idea of dashing off a manuscript in a fit of manic inspiration may be romantic, but it is not particularly practical. Instead, Eviatar Zerubavel, a prolific and successful author, describes how to set up a writing schedule and regular work habits that will take most of the anxiety and procrastination out of long-term writing, and even make it enjoyable. The dreaded ‘writer’s block’ often turns out to be simply a need for a better grasp of the temporal organization of work.

    The Clockwork Muse rethinks the writing process in terms of time and organization. It offers writers a simple yet comprehensive framework that considers such variables as when to write, for how long, and how often, while keeping a sense of momentum throughout the entire project. It shows how to set priorities, balance ideals against constraints, and find the ideal time to write. For all those whose writing has languished, waiting for the “right moment,” The Clockwork Muse announces that the moment has arrived.

  3. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Also of interest:

    Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History (2022)

    A review at the Toronto Public Library website reads:

    A child’s sense of safety, security, and national pride is upended as family histories surface and a political system splinters in this beautiful debut from Guardian contributor Ypi. The author, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Albania, recounts her coming-of-age in 1990 as the country (the last with Stalinist-type rulers in Europe) began to shed its Communist identity. She reflects on her puzzlement as a young girl when protesters demanding freedom and democracy took hold of her city that December. “We had plenty of freedom,” she writes. “I felt so free… my freedom as a burden.” That mindset, nurtured by her teachers at school, directly opposed the beliefs of her family, intellectuals and property owners whose own ideas of liberty led to their punishment in what the Party referred to as “universities,” where “different subjects of study corresponded to different official charges.” When the government crumbled, her parents felt it safe enough to finally reveal to her “that my country had been an open-air prison for almost half a century.” Out of this comes an electric narrative of personal and political reckoning, suffused with sharp cultural critique, that underscores history’s contentious relationship with independence and truth. This vivid rendering of life amid cultural collapse is nothing short of a masterpiece. (Jan.)
    (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

    The book is included at a webpage (which I found of interest) entitled: Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2021 longlist is announced.

    A previous post addressing related themes is entitled:

    Some reflections regarding the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania in December 1989

  4. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:


    Of related interest:

    A Jan. 4, 2022 Associated Press article is entitled: “Less than half of GOP say 1/6 was very violent: AP-NORC poll.”

    An excerpt (I’ve omitted the embedded links) reads:

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The fighting — so primitive and ferocious that one Capitol Police officer described it as “medieval” and another as a “trip to hell” — left more than 100 law enforcement personnel injured, some beaten with their own weapons.

    Video cameras captured the violence live, with rioters clubbing officers with flag polls and fire extinguishers, even squeezing one between doors as he begged for his life.

    Yet nearly a year after the Jan. 6 siege only about 4 in 10 Republicans recall the attack by supporters of then-President Donald Trump as very violent or extremely violent, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. About 3 in 10 Republicans say the attack was not violent, and about another 3 in 10 say it was somewhat violent.

    American democracy

    A Jan. 4, 2022 CBC article is entitled: “American democracy had near-death experience a year ago. This year will test its vital signs: The republic’s air of invulnerability was shattered in Jan. 6 attack on U.S. Capitol.”

    An excerpt (I’ve omitted the embedded links) reads:

    An NPR/PBS/Marist survey in November found that only 33 per cent of Republicans will trust the 2024 election result if their candidate loses, versus 82 per cent of Democrats.

    Another survey offers a warning sign. Washington Post polling over time has found a steady increase in people saying violence against the government can be justified, with 40 per cent of Republicans and 23 per cent of Democrats now feeling that way.

    If last year was the near-death experience, this year will allow us to check back in and test the republic’s vital signs.


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