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Liam Neeson and the Outrage Age

In an era of incendiary impatience, pop culture, society, and an Oscar-nominated actor grapple with what happens when a moment of painful honesty is 'Taken' out of context.

News in the 21st century moves fast. Often faster than our ability, or our willingness, to put that news in a context wider than hours or days. Liam Neeson is coping with that fact right now, answering today for something that never happened 40 years ago. 

When you first heard it, it sounded as if Liam Neeson was offering an expression of life imitating art, speaking in an outtake from any of his Taken trilogy or Gangs of New York, or from Non-Stop or The Commuter, or a scene from his latest film, Cold Pursuit: the famed Oscar-nominated Irish actor as the bludgeoning avenger, the everyman prowling the streets, seeking justice — or at least vengeance.

But Leeson’s admission in a Feb. 4 interview with The Independent, was a deeply personal one, and all too real. The actor said that some 40 years ago while living in Northern Ireland, he was told by a friend that she’d recently been raped. “I asked: Did she know who it was? No. What color were they? She said it was a black person.”

Thus marginally informed, Neeson apparently wandered the streets brandishing a club and looking for a person of color, identity unknown. He told The Independent: “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.”

“It took me a week, maybe a week and a half, to go through that... It was horrible, horrible when I think back, that I did that. And I’ve never admitted that. And I’m saying it to a journalist. God forbid.”

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News travels fast in this, the Outrage Era. Often, news moves faster than our ability, or our willingness, to put that news in a context wider than hours or days. That’s what’s been happening in the wake of Neeson’s candid interview.

Since then, Twitter has been on fire both with statements of support for the Irish actor, and with demands to ostracize Neeson socially and professionally. There have even been calls to digitally edit him out of the forthcoming Men in Black: International, or replace his work in the film with a new actor — the same tactic successfully used to excise Kevin Spacey from Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World (2017).

Neeson came out some days later, and sought to explain himself in an interview with Robin Roberts on ABC's Good Morning America. “I'm not a racist,” he told Roberts. I went out deliberately into black areas in the city, looking to be set upon,” he said. “It shocked me and it hurt me... I did seek help, I went to a priest.”

Reaction to Neeson's GMA appearance was about as mixed as that of the Independent interview that set it all off. That fact is a consequence of life in an impatient time of zero-sum-game morality: You’re either on one side of an issue or the other; there’s little allowance for the gray areas that define the human experience — that gray areas that make us human.

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But the rush to attack and isolate Neeson, even to the point of threatening his livelihood, points to not just a rush to judgment but also a false equivalence of action with contemplation of action, a thought with a deed, a history of a poisonous dream with the reality of an actual event.

One example: @DennGray tweeted: “boycott Men In Black the gutless coward Liam Neeson said he was walking around looking to kill an innocent black man who had nothing to do with his personal issues he's a gutless coward and a racist bigot”

To hear some of those prepared to hustle Neeson into the tumbrel and roll him to the PR gallows, the question is how much more of an anathema Neeson would be if it turned out he’d really done it — acted on that malignant fantasy all those years ago.

It’s certainly true, his use of the phrase “black bastard” in the Independent interview is hardly helpful; it’s a present-day expression of what he was apparently thinking four decades ago, an ugly grace note that no doubt gave pause to people otherwise willing to work Neeson’s corner.

Equally troubling is his apparent line of inquiry about the perpetrator’s identity. If the verbatim from the Independent interview is a truthful recounting of what he asked his friend, Neeson makes an implicit assumption that race should properly be first among equals as a means of identifying the rapist. 

He didn't ask a question about height or weight, hair color or accent, deformities or dental anomalies, facial hair or scars, piercings or tattoos. Race was top of Neeson’s mind back in the day.

While that fact is regrettable, it’s by no means specific to him. His leap to race as a primary criminal identifier was all too common decades ago; it’s even more reflexively invoked in the world today.

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Plumbing Neeson’s subconscious really isn't the point; there’s been too little consideration in this debate of what deserves to be central to this debate: Neeson was self-aware enough, 40 years ago, to realize just how corrosive, how wrong his thinking was. He self-corrected, understood the danger of his possible course of action enough to table his rage. 

Neeson didn't commit an explosion of latent hostility; there was no post-Seinfeld Michael Richards meltdown. Simply put: Neeson thought about what he was about to do, and pulled himself back from the brink of what would have been a life-changing — indeed, life-defining — event. He’s made no excuses for himself, hired no spinmeisters to tweak the story.

He owned up to a lapse of judgment, one that, mercifully, never crossed into the real world as a lapse of social behavior. If only others in the public sphere were as circumspect, as laceratingly honest, about themselves. 

As much for him as for any of us, the then and the now — the what happened and the what's happening — are bookends of Neeson's life. 

Witness the opening scene of Widows, Steve McQueen's brilliant take on the heist thriller. Neeson's character is in bed and in a hearty clinch with his wife, played by Viola Davis, the trailblazing, Oscar-winning, African American actress who co-stars in the 2018 film. Theirs is an prolonged, involving, interracial lip- and loin-lock uncommon in American films, even films made in the #OscarsSoWhite era.

Perhaps in the soulful intensity of that single scene, Liam Neeson was publicly but subconsciously making amends in one way... before publicly, and very consciously, trying to make amends in another.

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