John Barnes is right – outrage over the Liam Neeson confession should give way to something more useful

It is deceiving and self-righteous to believe monsters are easy to spot. The truth is we are all just a few steps away from being pushed over the edge

Sunny Hundal
Wednesday 06 February 2019 20:06 GMT
John Barnes says Liam Neeson 'should be applauded' for revealing he wanted to kill a black man after friend was raped

I suspect neither the actor Liam Neeson nor the footballer John Barnes see themselves as social commentators and yet, this week, they have offered some of the most illuminating views on race relations.

We are all bombarded with so many headlines every day that it’s convenient to quickly file them away in our minds according to stereotypes. Who’s got the time to carefully examine them all? We don’t have the time for nuance anymore, and frankly it is poisoning our public debate.

So here is my appeal. Let’s not give Liam Neeson a medal for speaking out, but let’s instead see his tale as a lesson for all of us. In three ways.

Here’s a brief summary of the background. While promoting his latest film, Liam Neeson (inadvertently?) mentioned a deeply buried incident from nearly 40 years ago. He revealed in an interview with The Independent he had once walked the streets with a cosh for days looking to kill what he called a “black bastard” after someone close to him was raped, apparently by a black man.

The first point Neeson illustrates is how easily we are seduced into seeking revenge due to the culture around us.

In those days, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, if a Catholic man got killed they would kill a Protestant man in revenge. If a Protestant pub got bombed they would firebomb a Catholic pub. His friend got raped so he sought revenge in return. The instinct was so natural that it was only later he realised it was a mistake. At least he did.

But our society still hasn’t learned the lessons. Nineteen Saudi terrorists attacked the World Trade Centre on 9/11 and since then the US has sought revenge in Afghanistan and Iraq. What did that lead to? A limp withdrawal from Iraq and peace talks with the Taliban, the original enemy. This culture of revenge is everywhere. Aren’t the people who want Liam Neeson to pay for his actions 40 years ago also motivated by the same desire?

Second, we believe racists and evil people are easily defined: surely they are the ones that go around looking for innocent black people to batter at night?

But it is deceiving and self-righteous to believe monsters are easy to spot. The truth is we are all just a few steps away from being pushed over the edge, given the wrong circumstances. It’s more important to recognise and tame the monsters inside us.

As John Barnes has astutely pointed out, prejudice seeps into us without us even realising it. Neeson was influenced by the culture and media around him to seek revenge against an entire race. They did that with Catholics vs Protestants, why not whites vs blacks?

At least he realised his mistake before he did anything. How many of us are brave enough to recognise and spot our own prejudices? How many of us are willing to talk openly about them?

This brings me to my final point. We cannot solve our problems by pointing fingers at entire communities and saying: “Sort your shit out.” It doesn’t work when people like Rod Liddle use their platform in national newspapers and magazines to push this bigoted view to black people. Nor does it work when dealing with white racism.

It gets solved by having a calmer discussion about how we internalise prejudices – whether against black people or women or Muslims – and owning up to them. But no one will own up to them if they only hear calls for retribution and revenge.

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Ruby Sales, an activist from the civil rights movement, said this recently in a talk: “I believe we must provide for the possibility of redemption for everyone. And we must be willing, despite the vitriolic language that might come from people who oppress us. We must listen to them and try to figure out where they hurt. We must do this because our redemption is tied to their redemption.”

Black people have a perfect right to look at incidents like this and ask: “Why do we have to keep forgiving? What about the black men who don’t get forgiven by white power structures every day?”

They have a point. But here is the difficult part: the alternative to a culture of forgiveness is one of retribution and revenge. And in that culture no one wins. Even Liam Neeson eventually understood that.

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