Police in Uvalde, Texas, face a barrage of criticism for delays in confronting the shooter who slaughtered children and teachers last week. Officials admit law enforcers screwed up; worse, they impeded parents who wanted to intervene, leaving the crime to be ended by agents who ignored police orders. As politicians rush to leverage tragedy to advance legislative agendas, we're reminded again that it's foolish to place our trust in authority or to surrender our ability to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
"From the benefit of hindsight, where I'm sitting now, of course it was not the right decision," Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, admitted of police choosing to wait for backup and equipment before intervening in a massacre that took the lives of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers. "It was the wrong decision, period. There's no excuse for that."
That decision delayed the response for over an hour. Finally, a Border Patrol team that drove 40 miles to the scene defied orders and stopped the shooter's rampage.
"Federal agents who went to Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday to confront a gunman who killed 19 children were told by local police to wait and not enter the school — and then decided after about half an hour to ignore that initial guidance and find the shooter," noted NBC News.
The feds weren't the only ones willing to intervene. Instead of taking on Ramos, local police tackled, pepper-sprayed, and handcuffed parents rather than allow them to take action at which officers balked.
"The police were doing nothing," said Angeli Rose Gomez who was briefly arrested for challenging official indecision.
"Once freed from her cuffs, Ms. Gomez made her distance from the crowd, jumped the school fence, and ran inside to grab her two children," reported The Wall Street Journal. "She sprinted out of the school with them."
This isn't the first time police faced criticism for dithering in response to danger. By the time officers entered Colorado's Columbine High School in in 1999, 47 minutes had passed allowing the shooters to do their worst before killing themselves. Columbine was supposed to spur changes in police policy, but that wasn't apparent during a 2018 incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
"Information reported over 10 months by the South Florida Sun Sentinel reveals 58 minutes of chaos on campus marked by no one taking charge, deputies dawdling, false information spreading, communications paralyzed and children stranded with nowhere to hide," that newspaper concluded.
Our discourse over law enforcement in recent years can be characterized as a debate between people who vilify cops and those who sanctify them. They're either racist thugs or a thin blue line standing against barbarism. The crimes of Derek Chauvin and his buddies as well as the heroism of the federal agents who raced to Uvalde shows that both breeds exist. But the majority of officers are regular people working a unionized public-sector job. Like most of us, they go through their days and collect their pay.
"Cops are civilians with guns who have had minimal training," Eugene O'Donnell, a law professor with John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former police officer told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "Some of them are heroic. But not all. You're asking for Zeus-like cops to speed to these scenes and be ready to put down mass killers. And cops are being told to stay out of trouble by the courts, the media, the culture. That's their alpha and their omega."
Angeli Rose Gomez's children gave her a personal stake, which is why she was willing to run into Robb Elementary School; other parents scuffled with police for the opportunity to do the same. An unidentified woman in Charleston, West Virginia, also had skin in the game (her own) when she drew a concealed pistol and put down a man who opened fire on a crowd a day after the Uvalde massacre, preventing the death of anybody other than the attacker. Most officers don't have personal stakes in the incidents to which they respond, and it's asking a lot to expect them to put their lives on the line for strangers. They don't even have a legal obligation to protect us.
"Nothing in the language of the Due Process Clause itself requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors," then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (1989).
So, we'd be foolish to surrender our right to defend ourselves and our loved ones, as many politicians demand, in hope that public employees with no stake in the situation and families waiting at home will take up the slack. No law or hollow promise relying on the limitations of human beings in public sector jobs can replace the attachments we have to our children, spouses, friends, and our own lives.
Politicians also vow to fortify schools against attack with fencing, metal detectors, and armed guards. The approach hardens targets, but it confines children in something like prison camps. It also leaves those within the perimeter at risk if it's breached. Then-Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble wrestled with that dilemma after a 2013 terrorist attack at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
"Noble said there are really only two choices for protecting open societies from attacks like the one on Westgate mall where so-called 'soft targets' are hit: either create secure perimeters around the locations or allow civilians to carry their own guns to protect themselves," ABC News reported at the time. Noble seemed to favor armed civilians since that allows for dynamic responses to unpredictable situations—assuming police don't tackle enraged parents trying to protect their children.
Based on the seemingly inevitable trail of threats, manifestos, and bad behavior left behind by Ramos and his ilk, some pundits advocate intensified scrutiny of potentially troubling messages. "The answer is obvious," insists Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. at The Wall Street Journal. "Surveillance powered by big data, whose advancing role in our world seems unstoppable in any case."
But, as economist Arnold Kling points out, a lot of people say troubling, violent, and extremist things, but very few actually do anything to endanger others.
"For surveillance to work, you have to be willing to see thousands of people tracked for every one who actually attempts murder," Kling cautions. "And you will have to intervene every time the surveillance algorithm reveals a potential for the person to become violent."
We would end up with a Big-Brother state staffed by risk-averse bureaucrats. They would live in dread of missing a dangerous person, and the threshold would drop whenever somebody slipped through.
The truth is that proposals for a prison society of disarmed and surveilled subjects shepherded by public employees are unworkable. The state can't defend us from danger, and nothing obligates us to pretend otherwise. If you want to protect yourself and your loved ones, you have to do it yourself.