WASHINGTON — It's possible the only difference between Liam Neeson's dark thoughts of racial vigilantism and those alleged of George Zimmerman, the Stand-Your-Ground neighborhood watchman acquitted of the 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, is this:
One may have acted out on his fantasy, tragically killing a young, unarmed black male long before we knew about Ferguson, Tamir Rice and so many more preventable deaths. Tuesday would have been Martin's 24th birthday, his death still eliciting Twitter trending and hard, heavy discussions on racial profiling. Zimmerman now drops n-bombs in his callous social-media trolling after his acquittal -- he advertised the gun that killed Martin as "an American Firearm Icon" -- makes him look even more grimy and guilty.
If you listen to the audio of Neeson's interview with London's Independent newspaper, in which the Northern Ireland-born actor reveals his racist reaction when a friend told him she was raped, it's much more disturbing than the written word.
“But my immediate reaction was, did she know who it was?" Neeson says. "'No. What color were they?' She said it was a black person.”
"I went up and down areas with a cosh [a crowbar], 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.”
The paper said he put his fingers up for quotes. But the intonation, his voice rising when he says, "black bastard," it's cringe-worthy, as if he could have used that term last week as cavalierly as 40 years ago.
Now Neeson is fending off accusations that his thinking was so contemptible, his revenge motive and misdirected anger so specific and race-based, that, for some, there is no path to redemption.
The Red Carpet events for the new movie Neeson was promoting, "Cold Pursuit," have been canceled since the firestorm over his comments began.
Whenever anyone has to go on national television now with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America and proclaim, "I am not a racist," they are already cooked.
And yet, I've been torn about this story, about what it means when someone divulges the darkest moment of their past, whether or not it still defines who someone is today.
It makes me wonder what’s really in a man’s neural cortex when he wants to kill someone simply because that person is the same race of a person who raped someone close to him. If he was racist then, and looks back on horror at himself, is he racist now?
The outrage is understandable. If, say, the African American actor Laurence Fishburne said he had a family member raped by a white man, and he spent a week walking around with a crowbar, looking for a beef with a “white bastard” he might kill, he might find his Hollywood roles drying up over night.
But as a journalist, as someone who prides himself on showing empathy and gaining a subject’s trust, it’s hard to watch a man vulnerable enough to put his most sinister thoughts out there for public consumption and see Neeson’s bare-his-soul moment become, “Eh, just another famous white man who's an ugly racist."
The Independent and the Los Angeles Times wrote editorials commending Neeson's authenticity, reasoning that such a revelation might help others feeling the same irrational hate for someone of another race see the moral error in their ways and maybe change.
In our own judgment and criticism, the seminal question facing us is this: Have you ever in your life wanted to hurt, if not kill, someone based on their race and because of what someone of that race did to you or your family?
And if the answer is, "No, that's sick and warped," then you can take a more critical stance toward Neeson. If the answer is, "Not kill, but I wanted to physically maim this (insert race here) man for what he did to me and my family," then you probably need to address why you felt that and whether any residue of racism is left in you.
Finally, if the answer is, "I can't believe I'm admitting this, but I once wanted to hurt and actually kill somebody because of the color of their skin, because of what someone else that looked like them did to me or my family," then your racist revenge fantasy is no less dangerous than Neeson's, and holding him to the fire if you're not doing the same to yourself is hypocrisy.
Either way, even if it's just a schoolyard brawl, being targeted because of your race leaves a searing pain. Trust me.
When I was 14 and in 8th grade, I went to wait for my bus in rural Oahu when an older kid from the high school and his friends surrounded me. He had a scab on his face and he said, "See what your haole [white] brother did to me?" before he hit me in the face.
I bled. His friends jumped in. They were mostly Filipino and Hawaiian/Chinese kids. A large Samoan offensive lineman from the high school saved me, bear-hugged me and took me to the nurse's office.
I carried the resentment with me for many years. My revenge fantasies as I grew older weren't racial; I'm not proud of it, but I just simply wanted to beat that kid's ass as an adult because I knew I could now do it. It took time, but I let it go. I think it was a friend who paraphrased one of Mandela's greatest quotes: "Holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to get sick. The only person dying is you."
The more I received responses on social media from people about this story -- mostly people of color -- the more I realized that Liam Neeson purging his guilt, sharing his intensely personal story, does not only serve to help others who might be in a similar mindset.
For all the black men killed by angry, fearful white men, who already have decided what those men represent before they confront them, just hearing Neeson's admission carries its own trauma; a reminder of the kind of thinking that makes ignorant people pull triggers and take lives for no reason.
In that way, Neeson's revelation was at the same time courageous and cold.
From Al-Anon to Overeaters Anonymous and beyond, Step 9 of most 12-step support programs begins, "Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."
Unburdening yourself in that kind of situation can harm others, bring back all the pain for those trying to understand why their loved one is dead just because they weren't born white.
I have to believe Travyon Martin's family didn't need to hear Liam Neeson's dark tale of when he actually went looking for some indiscriminate black man to hurt for no reason other than he was black. They've already seen that movie and the sequel. And on the day he would have been 24, the ending sadly never changes for them.