The Confession of Liam Neeson
On Monday, as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, I stumbled upon an article in the The Guardian with a shocking headline that read: “Liam Neeson: after a friend was raped, I wanted to kill a black man.” I thought, what in the seventh circle of clickbait hell is this? I read the article, thinking it would show the headline to be putting the worst spin on whatever it was Neeson had said. It turns out the headline was downplaying matters significantly.
Neeson’s film genre of choice is “middle-aged man on a revenge mission,” and he was promoting his latest offering, Cold Pursuit. While describing connecting to his character’s motivations, Neeson told the story of his response to learning that a female friend of his had been raped. Understandably, he was upset and filled with rage. Anyone would be. It was what Neeson did with his anger that is disturbing. Bent on revenge, Neeson tried to learn the identity of her attacker. It was a stranger. “What color was he?” Neeson pressed. I think, given the headline, every Black person reading the article took pause at this moment. After being informed that his friend’s attacker was a Black man, Neeson didn’t seek a single additional detail that could identify the man. His rage was turned on Black men as a group. As shocking as the Guardian headline was, it masked something terrible. Neeson didn’t want to murder a particular Black man for assaulting his friend, he wanted to murder any Black man. What makes the story even more disturbing are the overt acts Neeson took towards committing a pre-meditated, racially-motivated murder.
Neeson confessed to arming himself and heading out into the night, hoping a Black man would provoke him. Neeson said, “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 bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could … kill him.”
Fungibility vs. individuality. This is one the key axes of White supremacy and the White privilege it protects so viciously. White men like Neeson get to be individuals, protagonists in their own stories. Black people are wholly interchangeable even as the targets of revenge murders. That’s the crux of the dehumanization — the stripping away of any meaningful semblance of personality. We are all part of some interconnected hive. Harming one of us is as good as harming another. We know we’re lumped together and vilified. We know we’re not really seen as people. We know. It was still quite alarming to see a famous person with a reputation to protect admit it so openly.
The vague descriptions law enforcement agencies sometimes put out following a crime are among the more sinister ways the interchangeableness that is imposed on racialized people in White-dominated spaces plays itself out. “A Black man of medium height wearing a white shirt” isn’t a description — it’s vague to the point of uselessness. Sometimes it seems like that’s the point: to gin up a panic rooted in fear of Black manhood. There are plenty of people who share the fantasies Neeson confessed to having. Some of them act on their desire. The man who killed Trayvon Martin is one example.
As Neeson’s story spread, the news cycle carried over into Tuesday — February 5 — Trayvon Martin’s birthday. He should have been turning 24. “He looks Black,” Trayvon’s killer told the police dispatcher after calling 911, because he saw a Black teenager walking home from the store carrying candy and iced tea. “These assholes,” he said. “They always get away.” Soon after, he shot Trayvon to death. He was acquitted at trial. His defense was he was “standing his ground” after, armed with a gun, he followed and accosted a boy. The mindset Neeson described is part of what drives a certain kind of person to join law enforcement (as Trayvon’s killer had aspired to). It’s how they see the communities they police. It’s open season on Black people, who are targeted for harassment, trumped up charges and arrests, beatings, and killings. Neeson didn’t speak his words into a vacuum. He pressed open, festering wounds.
Who gets to be the protagonist? Following his friend’s assault, Neeson made himself the hero of a grotesque revenge fantasy. His redemption arc is the part of his story he wants us to focus on now. And it’s being eaten up by plenty of people calling him “brave” and “courageous” for sharing it, and patting him on the back for growing out of wanting to commit a lynching. That’s the bar. What’s being erased is that the fear Black people have of violent White men is justified. We know the odds are Neeson would have gotten away with it. Nevertheless, Black people who are continuing to look at Neeson sideways are being painted as churlishly withholding the forgiveness he deserves. We should be pleased he reformed himself and accept his word on the matter. Not wanting to murder one of us as revenge for the crime of another is the standard we’re being asked to celebrate.
How quickly so many White people jumped at the chance to forgive Neeson for a transgression he did not commit against them or anyone in their group is a pattern that needs to be broken. Stop centering Whiteness and its salvation. Black people know more about how these matters play out than anyone on the planet. We know how difficult — damn near impossible — it is to dig up the roots of violent, anti-Black White supremacy. It is insidious. The weeds overtake the crops, and it is Black people who suffer the stark and sometimes fatal consequences. Consider letting Black men — who are the targets of the violence Neeson wanted to mete out — be the protagonists for once. Allow them to take the lead in discussing this matter.