Perhaps the most alarming thing about the two mass shootings that occurred last weekend was the fact that my personal reaction to them was significantly more muted than other reactions I’ve had to similar events in the past. There’s a certain pervasive horror to the slow realization that you have the capacity to get used to awful things, even if only because it’s less mentally taxing than wallowing in the feelings of helplessness that typically bubble up in the aftermath of events outside your own control. Following a pretty physically taxing week, I wanted to spend Sunday recovering at home, and naturally I woke to all the chatter online about both shootings. Recognizing that the internet was not a good place to be, Rachael and I spent a large part of our day watching TV instead.
We’ve been meaning for some time to watch the second anime adaptation of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. We were both fans of the original series when we were in college, and given that our summers are coming to an end relatively soon, we decided it was as good a time as any to jump into the sixty-four episode series. At this time of writing, we’re well over halfway through it, and the quality is overall very good. It’s a much more compelling story than the slightly muddled one that had to be written to finish the first series, which outpaced the manga about halfway through its run and needed its own conclusion. The connections between Edward and Alphonse Elric and the Homunculi at the center of the conspiracy they get caught up in trying to stop makes significantly more sense, and the exploration of how various bonds develop and are reaffirmed provides a robust thematic framework for the various subplots that run through the main story. It’s an excellent series for marathoning and withdrawing from the rest of the world for a while, which made it ideal to dive into when the news was so upsetting.
Naturally, because total immersion is impossible, I got to thinking about the response to the El Paso and Dayton shootings from various Republican politicians including the national embarrassment, and I found myself dwelling on the similarities between Fullmetal Alchemist‘s conspiracy with the ongoing inaction (or in the case of the president, explicit encouragement) about gun violence that targets marginalized communities. At the core of Fullmetal Alchemist‘s story is the conceit that the Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that ostensibly allows an alchemist to ignore the laws of equivalent exchange that govern the series’s version of alchemy, is created by sacrificing human life. The series antagonists, the Homunculi and their Father, are a shadowy cabal that have been manipulating the country of Amestris since its inception to arrange a massive sacrifice of the entire country’s population in order to create the most massive amount of Philosopher’s Stone ever made, apparently to fuel the creation of an army of virtually immortal soldiers that could then be used to conquer the world (there may be parts missing from this explanation; I still haven’t finished watching the series). It’s all very dastardly and provides a good contrast to the dogged idealism that Ed and Al cleave to while they do everything possible to derail the Homunculi’s plans. Complicating the relatively straightforward struggle between these two forces is the fact that the Homunculi control the Amestrisian military, and the highest levels of the military are willing accomplices. Amestris has been committing atrocities for centuries in order to carry out the Homunculi’s plans, and its leadership have been totally complicit the whole time.
It’s easy to look at this setup and take some comfort in the understanding that most of the people who have signed on are being duped about their eventual reward as accomplices; if things go off without a hitch, all the people of Amestris will probably die, including all the military personnel who agreed to help the Homunculi. We can maintain the fantasy that they’re acting because they’re being manipulated, that if they knew exactly what would happen to them then they’d never let things proceed as far as they have. We want to believe that people in power would act in good faith if confronted with something so monstrous.
What we see instead, at moments like this past weekend, is that the fantasy of a shadowy centralized evil is exactly that: a fantasy. Human lives are lost regularly in this country specifically because our leaders, the ones who have engineered frustratingly sturdy strongholds of political power in our government for themselves, see that loss of life as a necessary cost for their own gratification. They don’t need to be manipulated by external monsters; they’re all too willing to sell out on their own.