Couch first earned nationwide disdain when an expert witness in his trial testified for the defense that he suffered from “affluenza,” a decidedly nonmedical malady wherein his wealth had supposedly left him incapable of comprehending the consequences of his actions. To make matters worse, a judge sentenced Couch to a stay in a California rehab center offering “equine therapy” and cooking classes. To make them worse still, after a viral video surfaced of Couch violating the terms of his probation playing beer pong, he and his mother ran off to Mexico, where an extended manhunt ended with their capture at a condo in Puerto Vallarta.
It was this last episode that landed Couch, finally, in jail for a two-year sentence that ended on Monday. And as the ankle-braceleted ex-convict exited the parole office, online observers erupted once again in fury at justice unserved.
Couch’s case, as it turns out, isn’t as simple as it suits the impassioned Internet to believe. For one thing, lawyers said after Couch’s trial that his punishment wasn’t unusual for a DWI manslaughter by a minor and first-time offender. And though affluenza was a cringily cute term for so tragic a context, Couch’s parents do bear some of the responsibility for him turning into the type of young man who could, amid a scene of horrific carnage, allegedly tell a witness, “Just remember my name and I’ll get you out of all of this.”
But because none of that excuses or erases what happened that June night, when a 16-year-old Couch hopped in his truck with a body alcohol level over three times the legal limit for an adult, it’s no surprise that the boy became a symbol for a slate of societal ills: the reckless entitlement of kids these days, the hazards of privilege run rampant in a country where there’s too much that money can buy, the inequities of our criminal justice system.
A comparison circulating on Twitter encapsulates the outrage. Couch, a wealthy white male, served 720 days for killing four people and then fleeing the country, when a black woman in the same state was just sentenced to five years in prison for voting while on probation — and she didn’t even know she couldn’t cast a ballot.
Critics are right that this is wrong. And some have devoted time to probing why it happened: Perhaps it’s the racial disparities in sentencing, or perhaps it’s ones based on wealth, too. Perhaps it’s a too-aggressive approach to voting violations, or a not-aggressive-enough one to juveniles driving drunk. Perhaps it’s all that, and more, put together.
Yet for others of us, there’s no need to think so hard when we can express amorphous anger about Couch and feel we’ve done our duty as engaged citizens. It’s easy to let ourselves off the hook by putting Couch on it — and not simply to avoid delving into the intricacies of the legal system. Parents worried they might have coddled their own children on a lesser scale can cry out against the Couches and assuage some of their concerns with self-righteousness. Those of us with a general sense that our privilege allows us to wander unburdened through the world can now ask for this young man to face consequences in our stead.
The word “affluenza,” as it turns out, came into coinage more than half a century before Couch, as a critique of consumerist culture. Those who came up with the term said that our obsession with material acquisition had alienated us from real feelings for real people. At Couch’s trial, the term was twisted into an individual affliction to suit the defense team’s needs — but initially, the fault was a collective one. This change is convenient, too. If we condemn careless detachment in Ethan Couch, we don’t have to worry about finding it closer to home.