The Uvalde Police Chose Dishonor

Elizabeth Bruenig / The Atlantic
The Uvalde Police Chose Dishonor Steven C. McCraw, Director and Colonel of the Texas Department of Public Safety (2nd L), speaks with DPS State Troopers near Robb Elementary School on May 30, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. (photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Where was their courage? Why were there no heroes?

Society cannot demand courageous self-sacrifice; we can only ask for it. Most of us know we ourselves would be too frightened to face an armed gunman in a direct confrontation, and we accordingly choose to seek work that doesn’t put us in such positions—or shouldn’t. But perhaps even some of those who do volunteer for danger now lack the internal fortitude, the relevant virtues of courage, honor, and selflessness, to take up the task.

On Tuesday, the Texas Department of Public Safety announced that Pete Arredondo, the chief of the Uvalde school district’s police, had ceased cooperating with the agency’s investigation into Arredondo and his officers’ response to last week’s mass murder at Robb Elementary School. Though DPS officials didn’t venture a guess as to why Arredondo had withdrawn his cooperation, the performance of the Uvalde police at the shooting—a portrait of which has emerged in grim detail after grim detail over the past several days—certainly supplies enough suggestion of lethal negligence and catastrophic failure to encourage the employ of a good lawyer.

Another man might own up to what he had done directly, but that same man likely wouldn’t have done what Arredondo evidently did in the first place—namely, barely anything at all. Unlike other school shootings, the urgent mystery at the heart of the Robb Elementary School slaughter is as much about the behavior of law enforcement as the behavior of the killer. Per the latest reports, though two senior police officers entered the school only two minutes after the killer and exchanged fire with him through a locked classroom door, Arredondo ordered his men to stand back for more than an hour, while children were dead and dying.

Though DPS and the Department of Justice have yet to release any findings from their investigations into the police response at Uvalde, we can rule out one explanation for so much incomprehensible delay: It wasn’t that they couldn’t breach the door. Police beat down locked doors regularly. It rather seems that Arredondo believed that all the children in the shooter’s reach were already dead—they weren’t; Arredondo had no reason to presume such, and possibly reasons to believe otherwise—and therefore that the most important thing was to wait for a Border Patrol team with better protective equipment to breach the door.

Yesterday, The New York Times reported that after a 10-year-old student called 911 and told the operator one of her teachers lay dying in the classroom, a group of law-enforcement officers in the corridor finally decided to act, ignoring an explicit order not to breach. Once they had chosen, after precious time had passed, to act, they simply entered the classroom and killed the shooter. No law-enforcement officers were killed, although one was grazed by a bullet fragment.

If the police had just broken down the door early on, they may have found the odds of a veritable throng of adult men against a teenage boy fairly favorable. Other men caught in the sights of school shooters have done as much. Liviu Librescu, a 78-year-old engineering professor at Virginia Tech, barricaded his classroom door with his body and directed his students to escape through windows during the 2007 rampage there. He eventually died of his injuries after the gunman gained entry. Riley Howell, a student, gave his life at 21 as he tackled a shooter firing into a crowded classroom at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2019, taking bullets to the head and torso as he slammed his body into the shooter’s, ending the killing. That same year, Kendrick Castillo, an 18-year-old student at STEM School Highlands Ranch, in Colorado, lunged at a shooter who opened fire on his literature class, allowing a group of other students to disarm the killer. Castillo, too, died for his bravery. There are so many others.

On occasion, and typically in contexts having more to do with what is done but ought not to be than what isn’t done but should be, we consider the malignant variant of male character called toxic masculinity. More familiar instances of toxic masculinity concern the wanton infliction of violence, especially the sexual kind, especially upon women and girls. In his threats of rape and domestic battery, the Uvalde killer himself exhibited this strain: emasculated, resentful, explosively violent but mainly toward women and children, for he was afraid of adult men.

Yet on the other side of the wall was, it seems, another sort of toxic masculinity—a platoon of armed and trained men who had evidently come to rely so heavily on guns and armor in lieu of courage and strength that they found themselves bereft of the latter when outdone in the former. Instead they were beset by cowardice, evidently as convinced as the shooter was that the gun really does make the man, and that outgunned is thus as good as outmanned.

In its own imagination, Texas is the land of men who would never admit defeat at all, much less surrender instantly with decent odds and innocent lives at stake: Surely its police ought to feel the highest and noblest sort of calling to valor, the type of vocation that surpasses profession and speaks to a person’s mission in life. Or perhaps those things, too, all the militarism and bravado, the heady authority and free respect, the unearned certainty in one’s own capacities provoked by so many Punisher bumper stickers and decals, had the same corrupting effect as the guns and body armor. Eventually, one either develops their own virtues or finds they’ve developed vices instead.

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