What would MLK or Nelson Mandela say about Liam Neeson?
In case you haven't heard about it, actor Liam Neeson, giving an interview to The Independent about his new revenge-themed movie, made the mistake of owning up to an ugly private moment in his past. A close female friend was raped by a black man. Neeson confessed- with shame, it should be noted- that his rage was so great that for a couple of weeks afterward, he carried a "cosh" with him, walking up and down the streets hoping that "some black bastard" would assault him. Not the rapist, mind you. Any black man.
He was misdirecting his anger toward an entire race.
The episode passed, he said, and then he was appalled at his own reaction. He still is. The entire point of his story was that the desire for revenge is irrational and ultimately accomplishes nothing. Neeson's confession was just that; a manful owning-up to something of which he is heartily ashamed.
I have several female friends who have confided to me that they have been victims of sexual assault. None are relatives. I have never been romantically involved with any of them. But in my darker moments, fantasies of beating the living crap out of their assailants still occasionally pass through my mind. I'm not proud of those fantasies, either. But it's a natural human reaction when someone a person cares about is harmed by a predator.
I myself was the victim of violent crime once, though it was nowhere near as violent or horrific as rape. The perpetrators were black. One night I stayed late at the college from which I graduated years later to hear, of all things, a presentation by a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union about police misconduct toward minorities. If I'd been smart, I would have "crashed" with one of my friends on campus. Instead, I hopped on the 'El' and headed home.
I had to get off the train and transfer to a bus in the most violent neighborhood in the entire city, East Garfield Park, at eleven at night. Blaming the victim is not normally a fair thing to do. It is in this case. Only an idiot would willingly be at that particular place at that particular time if he had white skin.
Before I was halfway down the stairs from the 'El' platform to the street, I met two African-American kids of high school age coming up. I heard one say to the other, "Let's get this honkey." They stopped me and demanded my watch (a cheap Timex) and my wallet (which contained all of five dollars). I started to resist.
Like I said, I behaved like an idiot that night.
I got punched in the face, breaking my glasses, and then they told me that they had a gun. I never saw the gun. But thereafter I didn't argue. I gave them what they wanted. As I was doing so, a police car came down the street and, since the officers had no way of knowing what was happening on the stairs to the 'El' platform, continued on its way. I mention that only because it increased my sense of frustration, of impotent rage.
As it happened, I was born only a few blocks away from the place where I was mugged. The hospital my family had used my entire life, where our family doctor was on staff, was at hand, I didn't really need medical attention, but I did need to find someplace to feel safe. Garfield Park Community Hospital qualified, As it happened, my father had had several serious operations there not long before, and at mealtimes or other breaks in my visits, I had often chatted with the security guard, who happened also to be an African-American. At that moment, he represented safety to me, a figure who represented order and protection, I was rattled enough that I wasn't even sure what to do next. I figured that he would know.
He was on duty that night. I don't remember my walk from the 'El' platform to the hospital, but when I arrived my black eye and broken glasses told him as much as I myself did. He had me sit down and collect myself while he called the police. I completed my journey home that night in a cop car.
I filed a police report, of course. The officers told me up front that on the basis of the information I had given them the chances of catching the muggers were between slim and none; the detective with whom I spoke on the phone a few days later said the same thing. I remember my emotions very well. The frustrated rage was overpowering. All I'd lost (besides my dignity) was five bucks and a cheap watch. Still, while I'd never seen any of Charles Bronson's Death Wish movies, I'd heard about them and thought about them quite a bit in the next several weeks.
And I'm ashamed to admit that I also experienced some racist emotions for a couple of days. I knew at the time that they were irrational as well as wrong, and I was ashamed of myself even as I felt them. I understand that they are a common reaction when a person is a victim of a crime committed by someone of another race. Nothing can justify them. But justifying them is one thing; recognizing that they are a predictable human emotion is another.
I would never have sought revenge on a random black person. In fairness- and here's a point that needs to be remembered, though nobody seems to notice it- neither did Neeson. He didn't start assaulting black people. What he did was to walk the streets, armed with a bludgeon, and hope that a black person would assault him. If Neeson had carried out his fantasy, it wouldn't have been against a random person who happened to have the wrong color skin. Only someone who attacked him would have been in any danger.
Not that the distinction helps his case much. But it is a distinction, and one worth making, I myself would never have done such a thing. But as I said, the Charles Bronson fantasies stayed with me for a while. Neeson simply took them a step further. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising; he'd grown up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, in an environment in which violence was very often the response to violence.
It did no more than think about what Neeson actually did. But the atavistic urge which arises from deep inside even as one's better self strives to repress it- to strike out at an entire group when one member of that group has done you or someone you love a violent wrong- is as human as it is idiotic. Decent folks are horrified to find themselves thinking such thoughts and fight to master them. But to have them, at least once, is only human. Ugly, repulsive, wrong- and human. Such a thing is never justified. But then, Liam Neeson agrees with that himself. The question is whether it is forgivable.
The muggers on the steps to the 'El' platform had nothing against me personally. They wanted to rob me as a means of profit. But I was not just a person they could rob. There was another aspect to the crime. I was "this honkey," I was white. Members of my race have wronged them. Would I have been robbed had I been black? I honestly don't know, but somehow I doubt it. Certainly, black-on-black crime in East Garfield Park is horrific. But the color of my skin was a target on my back. That's why it was so stupid of me to be coming down the steps from an 'El' platform in East Garfield Park at eleven at night.
Should that have been the case? No. Was it right? Were the muggers justified in dealing with me, not as an individual, but as a representative of another race? Of course not. But it was very human for them to have done so. And, I think, forgivable.
Yes, I know. Two weeks is a long time to nurture such an urge in one's heart. And Liam Neeson gave it a disturbing amount of space. The consequences could have been horrific. A mugging shouldn't carry the death penalty. That's one reason why I'm less than impressed by those who tout the carrying of guns as a way of warding them off. Yet somehow, I can't help but ask myself Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandala would say to Liam Neeson.
The man was ashamed of what he had felt, and of what he did. He volunteered the information in order to make the very point that the side of himself he indulged back then ought not to be indulged, and that to indulge is solves nothing and in fact, invites disaster. The difference between King and Mandela and today's connoisseurs of outrage is that for them, that would have made a great deal of difference. They were reconcilers, who sought to win the erring brother, and rejoiced when he was won. For all his lack of orthodoxy, Dr. King considered himself a follower of Jesus; when the minority white regime was toppled in South Africa, President Mandela and the movement he headed sought to expose the injustices that had happened under apartheid, not for the sake of punishing them and avenging them, but rather to expose them to the light of day, to be confessed and acknowledged and forgiven, because only thus could the races be reconciled and South Africa healed.
Christianity- the nominal faith of most of us- is not about being good. It's about being forgiven. It's about picking oneself up out of the moral dirt, dusting oneself off, and henceforth striving to be a better person. At some level, the Christian underpinnings of our culture incorporated that into our national ethos. A man who faces up to the darkness in his own soul, who acknowledges his mistakes, and who seeks to be a better person is, we've always thought, a person to be admired, a person who can be forgiven a great deal.
But no more. Now, in this petty, hateful, and divided age, we forget the darkness in our own souls and repress our own need to face up to it- to repent, to use biblical language; to change our minds, to literally interpret the Greek word the New Testament uses. Our patron saint is not the publican, but the Pharisee and our prayers are not for mercy because we are aware of how far we ourselves fall short, but rather of thanksgiving that we are not as others are- those racists, those Republicans, those Democrats, those liberals, those conservatives.
But we are. And our only hope is to do what Liam Neeson has done, unbidden, uncoerced, and of his own accord: to recognize how greatly we have, and still do, resemble the very people upon whom we pour our scorn. We chide and cluck and bewail even the speck our neighbor has already removed from his own eye, and never acknowledge the beam in our own.
What Liam Neeson admits to having felt, and done, disturbs me. But his critics disturb me far more. In their urgent lust to condemn, to ostracize, to ruin, to reject, to boycott, they represent something far, far darker than does a man who is ashamed of himself for what he felt and did a long time ago.
They represent something which reopens old wounds rather than healing them, makes the gulf between people unbreachable in the face of sincere contrition, and works the very opposite of what men like Dr. King and President Mandela spent their entire lives trying to do.
It has become fashionable to use even hate long since let go to justify our own present hate. And we, as a people, cannot survive it. It is causing us to devour each other, and ultimately ourselves.
Photo by Georges Biard