A tale of two fates: Tamir Rice and Ethan Couch

Tamir Rice (L) and Ethan Couch.

Tamir Rice (L) and Ethan Couch.

(L) Wiki Commons; (R) Tarrant County Sheriff's Dept.

Do the private-turned-public lives of two boys answer the age-old debate about the power of fate versus free will?

I’ve been thinking a lot about that while comparing the stories of 12-year-old Tamir Rice who lost his life at the hands of Cleveland police officers. And 16-year-old Ethan Couch who took the lives of 4 people while driving drunk.

There are few who would disagree that birth and circumstance shaped the trajectory of Tamir Rice. Fate decreed he be born poor and black.

A recent New York Times editorial described his life as "… hemmed in by forces that deny your humanity and conspire to kill you."

Fate conspired to place the 12-year-old in his neighborhood park playing with his toy gun and fate put him in the cross-hairs of two Cleveland police officers. His terrible preordained destiny played out in a flash after the cops gunned him down within a documented two seconds of arriving on the scene.

And how much more awful that Tamir’s main shooter was fired from his first job, because he didn’t have the professional temperament to handle firearms? Officer Timothy Loehman’s boss saying that neither "time nor training" would be able to correct his "deficiencies."

English playwright James Shirley said there is "no armor against fate." Tamir had no protection, and no relief even after death. Cleveland’s District Attorney spent one year investigating his killing only to announce that there wasn’t enough evidence to indict Officer Loehman and his partner. Telling that few are surprised.

If Tamir’s grim destiny seemed preordained by a cruel fate, young Ethan Couch was gifted with a gilded life supported and encouraged by rich parents. Ethan’s birth and circumstances gave him a keen advantage — he was able to use his free will to shape his own destiny.

Too bad Ethan didn’t care enough. He ingested three times the legal amount of alcohol, and drove friends on a beer-fueled joy ride. Speeding down a dark road, he ran over four pedestrians, killing them all; one of his passengers was left paralyzed. In court his defense claimed Ethan suffered from "affluenza," the inability to understand consequences due to privilege and extreme spoiling. In other words — horribly bad judgment. 

Unlike Tamir, he created his own tragedy. He didn’t have to drink until drunk, or to get behind the wheel or to speed on that road. Bad choices, an abuse of free will. The same free will he used to break probation by attending prohibited beer parties, and to escape to Mexico with his mother.

“Free will carried many a soul to hell,” stated preacher Charles Spurgeon, "but never a soul to heaven."

The waste of Tamir’s too young life, and the excess of the overindulged Ethan offends me. I don’t know if their two stories definitively answer any questions about destiny. But, if there is, indeed, a natural order to the universe, justice can’t come soon enough.

A version of this commentary first appeared on WGBHNews.org

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