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Understanding the failure at Uvalde

Federal report makes clear that the police did not have their priorities straight


Memorial at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on July 10, 2022 Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay

Understanding the failure at Uvalde
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Just about every aspect of the law enforcement response before, during, and after the May, 2022, mass shooting atrocity at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, was a failure, the U.S. Justice Department has said in a blistering report released last Thursday. While the botched response has already been well documented, the 610-page report offers the most complete account yet of just how a gunman could massacre 19 fourth-graders and two teachers and yet nearly 400 law enforcement officers, some just down the hall, failed to intervene.

The report chronicles a litany of “cascading failures of leadership, decision-making, tactics, policy, and training” at every level. But the most egregious failure was responding officers not reacting appropriately to the incident as an active shooter situation. Since Columbine, a fundamental precept in active shooter response is that the first priority must be to immediately eliminate the threat. “Everything else,” the report asserts, “including officer safety, is subordinate to that objective.” Such an effort “must be undertaken regardless of the equipment and personnel available to those first on the scene.” In Uvalde, this didn’t happen.

Instead, the first responding officers entered the school—impressively—within three minutes of the gunman firing his first barrage into the child-filled classroom. Propellant smoke, bullet casings, and active gunfire made it clear where the attacker was. A team of officers advanced toward the threat before they were fired on from inside the classroom. They retreated. What followed was a 77-minute lull in which an increasing number of local, state, and federal officers—heavily armed, some in armor, with ballistic shields—did a whole lot of preparatory things, or some really nothing at all, just outside the killer’s door. During that time there were at least six separate instances of gunfire from within the classrooms, totaling approximately 45 rounds. Any one of these instances should have pushed the loitering officers to take steps to stop the killing. They did not.

Reading the Uvalde report, I was struck by how closely the police officer’s mission corresponds to the just war duty of rescuing the innocent through promoting order, justice, and peace.

Christian charity demands that we not discount the terror the police officers, many surely inadequately trained, must have felt, nor that we ignore the psychological or institutional conditions that can paralyze large groups. Charity ought also to couple with humility and demand as well that those of us who have not been so tested not proclaim too confidently how we would ourselves react to direct gunfire aimed our way. But Christian duty, fortified by that same charity, must also make other demands. One would be that grown men ought never to do nothing while children are slaughtered.

The Greeks included courage among the virtues—those character traits that serve as markers of moral excellence. Courage, to bring Mark Twain into it, is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it. To be sure, it’s possible to fear more than one thing at the same moment. I might fear drowning, but I also fear losing my child to the riptide that has just pulled her far from shore. In such cases a proper understanding of the duties and responsibilities attendant to being a father should make clear that I mortify my fear of drowning and do whatever is necessary to save my daughter.

Reading the Uvalde report, I was struck by how closely the police officer’s mission corresponds to the just war duty of rescuing the innocent through promoting order, justice, and peace. Under just war doctrine, commanders establish rules of engagement based on a three-pronged set of sometimes conflicting commitments: to force protection, non-combatant immunity, and mission effectiveness. Context—as with my daughter and the riptide—determines which commitment is given priority. There are times when a mission is relatively non-essential. A commander might willingly abandon it—take a fail—if the danger to his forces is incommensurately severe. At other times, the mission is so essential that a good commander will willingly spend the lives of all his forces to secure victory.

Just so, when numerous children have already been shot and the shooter is in a room filled with additional possible victims, the mission is clear. Every effort must be dedicated to forcing entry into that room, stopping the killer, and rescuing those victims. The Uvalde police ought to have been clear about their priorities. Contrast their inaction with the aggressive forward posture of the police who eliminated the Nashville school shooter within minutes. Only overwhelming action to eliminate the murderer—at whatever costs to themselves—was acceptable. Whatever hampered this in Texas—whether cowardice or policy or uncertainty—ought to have been mortified.

Two tragedies occurred in Uvalde—one happened in a classroom and the other in the hallway. The greatest failure in Uvalde was not procedural. It was moral.


Marc LiVecche

Marc LiVecche is the McDonald Distinguished Scholar of Ethics, War, and Public Life at Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He is also a non-resident research fellow at the U.S. Naval War College in the College of Leadership & Ethics. He is the author of The Good Kill: Just War and Moral Injury.

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