Who is Ethan Couch? A few weeks ago various news sources* reported that he was arrested in Peurto Vallarta, Mexico, after weeks on the run with his mother that made them subjects of an international manhunt. He is a teenager from Texas who was facing the prospect of a court hearing so he and his mother had a farewell party with friends and then disappeared. They changed their appearances and drove deep into Mexico, hoping not to be noticed among many American tourists in a resort city. This may not be so unusual until you hear the back story. When Ethan Couch was 16, he was spared prison after killing four people in a drunk-driving accident because a judge found that he suffered from “affluenza.”**
At the time of the accident on June 15, 2013, when he took seven friends for a high-speed ride in his pick-up truck, Couch’s blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit and there were traces of Valium and marijuana in his system. He ploughed into a broken-down car at over 70 mph, killing four people who were working on it. Two of his friends were critically injured and one was left paralyzed.
Couch’s defence hinged on a psychologist’s evidence that the boy could not understand the consequences of his actions because he had been raised by “profoundly dysfunctional” millionaire parents who encouraged his bad behaviour. He was too influenced by privilege and his parents’ permissiveness to know right from wrong. “Instead of the golden rule, which was — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you — he was taught ‘We have the gold, we make the rules,’” Dick Miller [a psychologist hired by the defence] testified.
Why would I want to identify with Ethan Couch? I don’t want to, but perhaps I need to. Suniya S. Luthar, professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College write that “It would be foolish to allow an absurd effort to minimize one teenager’s responsibility for a horrific tragedy to obscure growing evidence that we have a significant and growing crisis on our hands. The children of the affluent are becoming increasingly troubled, reckless, and self-destructive. Perhaps we needn’t feel sorry for these ‘poor little rich kids.’ But if we don’t do something about their problems, they will become everyone’s problems.” Wealth and privilege have led to amorality and callous disregard for human life. Shame on us as a society! Let us repent and choose another way for us and our children.
*The Hamilton Spectator, January 7, 2016; The Globe and Mail, December 30, 2015; CBC news, December 29; The Times (London, UK), Dec 18, 2015.
**Affluenza: the unhealthy and unwelcome psychological and social effects of affluence regarded especially as a widespread societal problem accompanied by feelings such as guilt, lack of motivation, and social isolation experienced by wealthy people. : extreme materialism and consumerism associated with the pursuit of wealth and success and resulting in a life of chronic dissatisfaction, debt, overwork, stress, and impaired relationships.