The Unspoken Conversation around the Liam Neeson Controversy

By: Rebecca Amadi

After a friend was sexual assaulted, Liam Neeson admitted that he spent a week looking for any Black man to provoke him into a fight to justify killing him. Many can understand the desire for revenge in honor of a loved one. Indeed, Neeson has built a career on such stories, thrilling audiences as they cheer on his character’s righteous rage. However, this real-to-life story is seeded in a more insidious thought process that captures a side of humanity not often depicted by movie heroes. Neeson’s obsession with finding a Black man to attack and potentially kill is not just a story of revenge. Instead, it was a narrative that relies on subconscious and prejudicial rhetoric.

As Neeson recounted prowling predominately Black neighborhoods praying for any excuse to unleash his rage on any “Black b*****d,” historical memories are brought forward. The 20th century is full of tragic stories of innocent Black men and women falling victim to racial terror by means of lynch mobs. Indeed as the Equal Justice Initiative notes, “lynching is most commonly remembered as a punishment exacted by white mobs upon black men accused of sexually assaulting white women.” Of the 4,084 documented lynching victims, 25% were accused of sexual assault — “even without identification by the alleged victim.” Despite Neeson’s comments saying that he would have done the same towards any other accused group, it is hard not to recall these horrific memories. We should not be interested in sensationalized stories about Neeson, his career, or his apology. Rather, the focus should be on what we learn from his thought process. We must put Neeson’s thought process within a larger context, because while he says he is remorseful and happy that he “came to his senses,” his idea was not unique nor formed in a vacuum. At the time in question, Neeson believed that any Black body was deserving of violence as payment for his friend’s assault. Dylann Roof told two F.B.I agents that his brutal killing of nine innocent Black churchgoers was justified because “black people are killing white people every day on the streets, and they rape white women, 100 white women a day.” We must put Neeson’s “primal instinct” within a larger canon that reveals a common theme of the pathological Black sexual assaulter. His revenge fantasy as an individual is representative of a larger issue with racist stereotyping that can be found at the heart of numerous hate crimes.

Retribution and retaliation against those deemed “other” are justified through the dehumanization of the marginalized group. When people decide, as Neeson did, that one group is “deserving” of violence for the action of another, it creates an environment where hate festers. After the September 11th attacks in New York City, there was a sharp increase of violent attacks against Arab, Muslim, and South Asian Americans. The Arab American Institute labels these attacks as “backlash” that increased discrimination, harassment, and exclusion. There was also an increase in intimidation, verbal threats, and vandalism. Reports suggest that thousands of anti-Arab hate crimes took place after 9/11.

When a group is scapegoated and labeled as inherently dangerous, others feel empowered to play out their own revenge stories. Once a group is dehumanized and narrowed to their perceived offending identity, violence and hate against them is then considered acceptable. This thought process is dangerous. It is seen in numerous videos of white people calling the police on innocuous Black people living their lives and the automated suspicion towards Sikh people in their religious clothing. This paranoia and apprehension are small pieces that fit together to create a climate of distrust and dehumanization as entire beings are narrowed to the unjustified negatives associated with their identity.

Some people have rebuffed criticism of Neeson’s story and defended his apology. Neeson also clarified in a later interview, emphasizing his regret and shame. Many have also said that Neeson’s comments should be used to start a conversation about racism instead of forever labeling someone as racist. If we approach the story to move forward through constructive dialogue, we must address the essences of what that story reveals. Internal biases and stereotypes are pervasive. We must address the implications of his stories within the wider narrative of racism and biases. Hate crimes against marginalized people stem from creating an acceptable other to ostracize and violate. The understanding that some people “deserve” violence and should take on the blame for the actions of others is a complex manifestation of racist ideology. It also provides the foundation for xenophobic fears that individuals crossing the border illegally are stealing jobs and contributing to gang violence.

Relying on stereotypes and dehumanizing portrayals of others creates an environment that justifies violence against marginalized groups. When we do not actively challenge the belief that “Black men are violent predators” or that “Muslims are terrorists,” we subconsciously validate conditions for violence. To combat hate crimes on the individual level, we must hold ourselves and others to a standard that shuns racist thinking. Neeson admitted that his behavior at the time was awful. When reflecting on Neeson’s comments, it is not enough to just call his thought process and actions awful. We must also work to unlearn the foundation they were built on. If these things are awful, we need to frankly point out what was awful and why to create meaningful dialogue that does not dismiss legitimate concerns as products of “cancel culture”. Focusing only on potential consequence for this admission removes the focus from what was truly awful about his story. Neeson was bold to admit his past mistakes unprovoked, but we must also frankly address what those comments mean for society in 2019. We need to be honest about painful histories, the undeniable present, and the continuous systems that fuel similar racist thinking. If Neeson’s admission was meant to spark a conversation, let’s talk.

Rebecca Amadi is a Stop Hate Project intern at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. 

She is a Senior at the George Washington University studying International Affairs and Africana Studies.