EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 28, 2009

Our view: Time to move on from Gates tempest

At the end of a tumultuous week marked by misinterpretation, overreaction and an unfortunate rush to judgment by parties with wildly divergent experiences and points of view, President Obama spoke the truth when he described the flap over Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates' arrest as a teachable moment for everybody, including himself.

The president last Thursday admitted to his own role in fanning the flames of racial discord by accusing Cambridge police of having "acted stupidly" when they briefly detained Gates on a charge of disorderly conduct.

The remark came during a press conference, the topic of which was supposed to be health care reform, and clearly Obama would have served himself and everyone else better by sticking to that subject. But when asked the question about Gates' July 16 arrest, the president gave an off-the-cuff opinion, after admitting he did not know all the facts about what happened on the professor's porch a few days earlier.

By the end of last week the administration was scrambling to clarify.

From what we know now, it appears both the professor and the police were guilty of overreaction. Gates got carried away with his indignation over being questioned about being on his own property, while police and prosecutors quickly concluded that the charge of disorderly conduct would not stick.

Cooler heads could have prevailed sooner, but didn't. As a result, Harvard, the city of Cambridge and the White House were drawn into a controversy all could well have done without.

As has been noted in this space before, police perform a dangerous job that demands they be both suspicious and aggressive. They had no idea who might have been breaking into Gates' house when called to the scene by a neighbor.

And yes, Gates had a right to be indignant. This was his home, after all; and the fact he had to bust open a stuck door after returning from a trip abroad likely had him in a bad mood.

But the best tack when dealing with the police is to follow orders and file a complaint later if one is warranted.

Obama has invited Gates and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, to join him at the White House for a beer. All appear willing to put the incident behind them. If all three are willing to be taught, as well as to teach, that should be possible. Hopefully, everyone else can do the same.