Jake O'Kane: We should be applauding Liam Neeson, not demonising him

Many of his critics speak as if anger, rage or revenge are alien concepts to them and so, in their perfection, they condemn Neeson all the more. I'd suggest they're living in a state of self-serving delusion

Liam Neeson is interviewed by Robin Roberts on Good Morning America this week in the wake of his controversial race comments. Picture from ABC via AP
Jake O'Kane

“I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody – I’m ashamed to say that – and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some black b*****d would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could… kill him.”

THIS is what Hollywood actor Liam Neeson said to a journalist during a publicity junket for his new movie Cold Pursuit. The fact that Neeson didn’t attempt to ameliorate or soften the brutality of his thinking at that time has led to a predictable avalanche of criticism.

It goes without saying that there is no way any right-thinking person could justify what he said. Even when the comments are put in context – he’d just been told by a close female friend that she’d been brutally raped by a black man – in no way does this justify Neeson going out armed to attack a completely innocent black man in revenge.

But that’s the point: as Neeson explained, at the time he himself was not a right-thinking person; what he felt then, he said, was a primal rage, an overwhelming need for revenge which consumed him for a week.

That he appeared on the Good Morning America programme the day after the story broke showed a man willing to face the criticism his comments had elicited and admit the bewilderment, shock and hurt he’d felt by his actions 40 years earlier.

When asked by the black female interviewer what he thought was the "teachable moment" from the incident, he replied he hoped it would lead to people addressing the reality of racism and sectarianism which permeates society both in the US, and here in Northern Ireland.

Many of his critics speak as if anger, rage or revenge are alien concepts to them and so, in their perfection, they condemn Neeson all the more. I’d suggest they’re living in a state of self-serving delusion and should delve a bit deeper before jumping to judgment.

The attempt by sensationalist media to portray Neeson’s outburst as one of pure racism was immediately debunked by former England footballer John Barnes, who said the actor deserved a medal for his honesty. Barnes, a man who suffered racist abuse throughout his playing career, stated the actor had bravely acknowledged an "unconscious racism" throughout society.

Amid the frenzy of media condemnation, I tweeted: “The person who believes, ‘I'd never do that, or say that’, is deluded beyond belief. Liam Neeson is not a racist, he's a man who faced his demons and is bigger for it”.

Few admit, even to themselves, that we all – to differing degrees – have the potential for such intolerance and hatred. Thankfully, most of us learn to control these tendencies and have lives untouched by the primal rage spoken of. But it’s there, and if you doubt this, take a moment and think how you’d react if your partner – or worse – your child, was attacked.

During the Troubles, we witnessed the reality of revenge-lust almost daily; it went under the euphemism ‘tit-for-tat’ attacks. In reality, this meant the killing of completely innocent people on both sides by psychopaths playing a perverse game of keeping score. This, alongside the Balkan wars and the rise of Isil, demonstrates how easily the patina of civilisation can fracture, allowing a collective primal rage to rise.

In the cacophony of self-righteous indignation over Neeson’s comment, one very important point was missed – he ‘came to his senses’ and no act of violence occurred.

Realising how dysfunctional his thinking had become, he sought help, power-walking for two hours a day to deal with his anger. When someone works through such negativity, rather than acting upon it, we should be applauding instead of demonising them.

We are all in a state of flux, continually changing and maturing in our thinking and attitudes. Each one of us time-travels from childhood hopefully to old age and, in doing so, we evolve. When Neeson spoke of himself as a young man, reacting to the rape of a friend, he was talking about someone else – a man long gone. In the subsequent four decades, great societal changes have hopefully altered all our attitudes around race, religion and sexual orientation.

Of course, many will refuse to accept any of this. Neeson has already felt the wrath of the pure of heart, with the premiere of his movie being cancelled. The message is clear – in this age of political correctness, you speak the truth at your peril.

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