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.

7 Comments for Can Professor Gates Blame Jet Lag?

Grizzly Bear Mom 07.31.09 | 1:27 PM ET

Sometimes people are just looking to be offened too. 

Like during rush hour when someone complained on the swaying subway that I touched them with my backpack.  I said “yes ma’am (To me everyone is ma’am),  I can touch you, or touch these two people even more.  Can you move over to that empty place right in front of you?” 

Or another time when I opened my soft canvas briefcase and it extended past my thigh and touched the woman next to me.  She complained that I had “hit” her. 

If I accidently bump or step on someone enough to have caused them discomfort I normally apologize proactively.  But I believe the above a natural consequences of using “MASS” transportation.  It’s designed to mash us together to keep costs down.  However, sometimes people are just rude. 
But sometimes people are needlessly rude such as jabbing you in the breast with an elbow trying to get to the front of the line, or abrade your hand with their wicker purse and keep walking.

Ying Tsen Hong 08.01.09 | 9:58 PM ET

This is bullshit.
The presidential misstep was trying to apologize for a valid statement.
Even a half black President of the United States of America feels like he has to kowtow to prevalent police harassment of Blacks to keep the peace.
Jetlag my a**. This is bullshit.

grizzly bear mom 08.02.09 | 6:23 AM ET

What racial profiling?  The Hispanic woman that called said two men were trying to break into a house.  And if she had described them as black, still so what.  Her description was accurate if the police were looking for robbers in the neighborhood.  If anything that she was gender profiling which I hope takes place when people report rapes.  I’ve taken Gate’s trip four times, one when I was escorting six orphans under the age of two from Soul to DC over a 24 hour period.  I was so tired at the end I couldn’t hold the babies to my shoulder any more.  That didn’t justify my mouthing off to an 1. Officer of the Law or 2.  the guy with the gun and ability to arrest me!!!!!.  Yeah I’ve called police for break ins in my neighborhood, both times for people of the same gender and race as myself.  I also had same gender and race people come over to see if I were breaking in.  Great!  That is how we keep crime out of my neighborhood.  Imagine if neighbors didn’t care if people robbed you.  I’ve also had Security Officer rip the badge from the lanyard around my neck for walking in the door they didn’t want me to use.  I thought about having her disciplined but thought she might get fired at Christmas, we were in a recession and she probably had kids.  So what if someone calls you and Anus or Donkey?  Sticks and stones STILL DON"T BREAK MY BONES , only my own   insecurities allow those experiences to do so.  The Professor needs to take responsibility for what he did wrong.  If he had just showed the Officer his license, and not cursed him in public this would not have been a situation.  If the professor had been a white guy, Bush would not have invited him to the White House. 

And BRAVO to V.P. Biden for never taking a drink.

Jennifer 08.03.09 | 11:08 AM ET

Ying Tsen Hong:

Your comments add nothing to the specifics of this particular incident.  In fact, they are right on par with Professor Gates overreaction and juvenile behavior!

“The presidential misstep was trying to apologize for a valid statement.”  How about an ignorant statement!!  Overly confident Obama made a statement without thinking and was at least smart enough to openly admit this!

Calling this police harrassment is not even a valid point if you ask me.  A Hispanic women placed the call to the police, the police responded (one of whom was BLACK), and did their job in questioning Mr. Gates.  Where exactely is the harrassment?  This only became an issue when Mr. Gates made a scene thinking he could get away with his childish behavior because of his position at Harvard.  How embarrassing for him!!!!!!!  Misunderstandings do not always mean that profiling is involved!

I agree with Grizzly Bear Mom, being tired is not an excuse for acting disrespectful and then making a huge scene about it to boot!

I do agree with you, however, when you ever classily state:  “Jet lag my a**.  This is bull shit!”

Karen 08.03.09 | 5:21 PM ET

The thing that bugs me is that Gates basically got arrested for mouthing off to a cop. That’s not nice, but it’s not illegal, and Gates shouldn’t have been arrested for it. I agree with Obama - the Cambridge police did act stupidly in letting one of their officers arrest a man for simply being agitated and exercising his right to jet-lag induced (or whatever) free speech. Cops should not abuse their position and egotistically wield their power by arresting those who piss them off. Gates’s ego was obviously bruised too, but he’s not the one holding the gun. And for those of you who insist that we should all just kow-tow to cops and maintain our composure and take a “yes, sir, no sir” approach - that just reinforces their sense of entitlement. Now, I’m not advocating we go back to the 60s when cops were called horrible names and spat on, I’m just saying that cops should be trained to ignore the temptation to put a back-talker in his place. Police are verbally baited and provoked every day of the week, but they need to learn to ignore it all unless it’s a specific threat to their person. The best cops do.

Cate 08.04.09 | 11:08 AM ET

Who knows whether jet lag was a contributing factor, the point is that it happened and people are scrambling to pass on the blame to one of the parties, instead of moving beyond that and finding a solution. I know that jet-lag can make you short tempered, I’ve had an explosive argument with airport quarantine officer in Beijing over what I deemed as being a stupid policy, but I contained it knowing that if I pushed it too far things would escalate. Professor Gates kept pushing and didn’t let up.

It doesn’t take just one incident to turn a person’s character into something different, the personality has been nurtured and developed during their lifetime. Professor Gates demonstrates as having a strong, opinionated, argumentative personality, which can be beneficial at the right time. He just happended to push a police officer—too far.  And the police officer wasn’t mentally equipped for it.

Karen makes a good point, police need to develop a stronger threshold for personalities like Professor Gates.

AnnanAmos 09.03.09 | 4:56 PM ET

I had a feeling the entire time that it was an incident that had been blown far out of proportion, by both sides, and Obama throwing his hat in the ring was just a dumb move.  (By this point, I think he’s sort of a failure - I didn’t think he was going to bring about any real change and so far he hasn’t.)
All parties handled things wrong.  Gates, for one, should have been a little more polite with the officer. If he hadn’t opened his mouth and starting acting like a jerk, then he probably wouldn’t have been arrested.  Obama should have just kept his big mouth shut - it was a non-incident, and if he wants to protest a threat to the civil liberties of Americans, then he should have been at his desk, instead of the microphone, and actually living up to his campaign promises and drafting legislation to repeal the PATRIOT act, as well as REX 84, the War Powers acts, ending the war in Iraq, the Federal Reserve Act, and reinstating the gold standard - because THOSE are threats to American Liberty - and not talk about one perceived act in which he did not have all the facts of the case.
All of this is not to say that racial profiling doesn’t exist, because it does.  Nor am I to suggest that there was no racial profiling that occurred in the case of Gates - it could have, subconsciously, but the officer in Question - Sgt. Crowley -has an excellent record, no incidents of racial abuses or profiling, and actually teaches a course in Racial Profiling (why and how to avoid it, not how to do it) at the Police Academy.  Also, the neighbor that made the call to the police said she couldn’t tell the race of the people on the porch next door.
In the end, Gates is certainly guilty of being a JERK, Crowley is guilty of not being very understanding, and Obama is guilty of opening his big mouth when he doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about.

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