Can Professor Gates Blame Jet Lag?
Eric Weiner: Eric Weiner says altered circadian rhythms may explain how a minor confrontation escalated into a national brouhaha
07.30.09 | 5:02 PM ET
The controversy swirling around the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has captivated the nation. And for good reason. It is one of those Perfect Storm stories that pushes all of our national buttons—at the same time. It is a story about racial profiling and police power, about the state of race relations in America, about teachable moments and Presidential missteps, about the ameliorative powers of Bud Light.
It is also a story about jet lag. In fact, altered circadian rhythms may explain how a minor confrontation escalated into a national brouhaha.
Professor Gates was just returning from a trip to China when he was confronted by police at his home. This is not an insignificant detail. The time difference between Beijing and Boston is 12 hours, flipping night and day perfectly. A typical nonstop flight from Beijing to New York takes 12 hours and 45 minutes. Throw in a layover at New York’s JFK airport, another flight to Boston’s Logan Airport, some more time to retrieve luggage and the taxi cab home and you have one very tired traveler.
Officer James Crowley told a Boston sports station that during the confrontation Professor Gates “seemed very peculiar,” adding that he acted “put off” and “agitated.” That is consistent with someone suffering from jet lag. Studies have found that jet lag causes insomnia, fatigue, irritability, “mood disturbance” and “an impaired ability to concentrate.” And those symptoms are particularly pronounced when flying from west to east, as Gates had just done.
Put yourself in Gates’ shoes. You’re tired. You have a head cold. You want nothing more than to crawl into bed, but the darned door is stuck. Finally, the door opens and you’re home at last. Enter Sgt. Crowley and the rest is, as they say, history.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that jet lag caused the confrontation that day in Cambridge. I’m willing to bet, though, it exacerbated it.
But, you say, wasn’t Professor Gates a frequent traveler, and therefore less susceptible to jet lag than a first-time flier? Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Jet lag is not something you get used to, no matter how often you fly. (Just ask any pilot or flight attendant.) And despite claims of miracle cures—pine-bark extract is the latest fad—there is no pill you can take for jet lag. We were not made to cross time zones at nearly the speed of sound. Jet lag is nature’s way of clipping our wings, of slowing us down.
Writing in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd concludes that Gates-gate shows how “race, class and testosterone will always be a combustible brew.” I agree, but add jet lag to that brew and you’re almost sure to have an explosion.