Texas’s Season in Hell

Summer in Texas is a tense, precarious time, and it always seems to build inevitably toward a catharsis that doesn’t arrive.

A collage of the Uvalde victims, with silhouettes of police officers in the foreground
AP; Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Elizabeth Bruenig is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

The entire country seems to be swept up in the smothering heat of a long, blinding, burning Texas summer. It isn’t so much the climate—though it is that, too, and I have spent hours half-asleep reflecting on the fact that one day, should the slow creep of equatorial heat continue, everyone will eventually index the world to the same catalog of images I did growing up: dead earthworms baking on the sidewalk, melted asphalt clinging to rubber-soled sneakers, caution tape draped over schoolyard playgrounds with signs warning of second-degree burns.

Inevitably, all of that just served as context. In the summer, people are angrier, violent crime is higher, and wildfires spark easier in dry western grass. It is a tense, precarious season, and it always seems to build inevitably toward a catharsis that doesn’t arrive. The heat fades so slowly, you never really forget it, and by the time it comes again, it’s like it never retreated. Time stagnates. It’s a peculiar feeling I’ve always thought of as a by-product of repetition—18 summers squinting into the sun by day, sweating in the dark by night, waiting for a reprieve with one half of a permanent headache—that would try anyone. Now it’s trying everyone.

The tension of it, at least, and the blindness, the sense of stagnation, panic, and despair: All those hallmarks of Texas’s most hellacious season caught up with the country the day the news broke about the slaughter of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and the role law enforcement had declined to play as the killer took their lives. It was something about the stillness of it, like the lethal quiet under the noonday sun: How was it possible that, beyond the chaos of so many parents shouting and brawling with police in hopes of rescuing their children from the locked-down school, so many officers simply stood uselessly outside an unlocked door while 19 of those kids were murdered? And what to make of the seeming stability of their lives now—specifically the life of Pete Arredondo, the Uvalde CISD Police chief who has yet to resign his post despite his abject failure and the open resentment of the people he betrayed?

Now we have another article of unearthly quiet: A video, released by The Austin American-Statesman, that shows, among other things, the impotent police response on the day of the murders, as recorded by an officer’s body camera and the school’s surveillance system. While children are killed behind a classroom door—their screams, the Statesman noted, have been edited out—a claque of heavily armed adult men in body armor consult their cellphones, floor plans, and one another about what they ought to do, if anything. It’s only after an hour that they decide to breach the classrooms where so many children are already dead.

The families of the Uvalde victims were furious and horrified by the video’s publication. Angel Garza, who lost a 10-year-old little girl, told CNN: “Who do you think you are to release footage like that of our children, who can’t even speak for themselves, but you want to go ahead and air their final moments to the entire world? What makes you think that’s okay? The least you can do is have some freaking decency for us.” Javier Cazares, the father of another child killed at Robb Elementary, added that the families had been preparing to view the footage together this Sunday and were shocked by the leak. “These families didn’t deserve it. I don’t deserve it. That’s a slap to our babies’ faces and we’re tired of this. We can’t trust anybody no more.”

Their pain was lost in a general outpouring of directionless rage and despair prompted by the video—it didn’t, in other words, stop anyone from watching, though who knows what the purpose of doing so is for the average person. That the law-enforcement officers gathered in the corridor lined with cheerful industrial tile and whittled away upwards of 70 minutes while women and children were slaughtered mere feet away was already well known, if not particularly easy to understand.

Elizabeth Bruenig: 78 minutes

On that front, the video isn’t so much revealing as disorienting. What feels like submitting evidence for the broad review of a national jury is, in reality, the release of poison into the mind of millions of ordinary Americans who could otherwise have gone to their grave without knowing what a person looks like moments before they kill 21 people in cold blood, while a small army waits outside. As of right now, the police response to the Uvalde disaster remains an item of multiple investigations, and one could be forgiven for feeling skeptical that any species of cop will ever bring much justice to bear upon another. Watching the police’s non-intervention is a kind of torture—just knowing about it was a kind of torture—but to see it is to feel the urgency of it, and to feel the urgency of it is to feel its twin despair. There’s nothing that can be done now.

But doesn’t it feel like the fever rising, like some immeasurable ratcheting up of pressure, as though there ought to be some meteorological instrument somewhere straining against its casing, trying to tell us we’re near the end? There is a nightmare somewhere deep in my memory of watching the thermometer on our back porch climb up past 100 degrees Fahrenheit, past 110, 130, past the bulb at the top of the vial. But the heat doesn’t stop when the temperature tops out. It just keeps getting hotter.