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Fintan O’Toole: Liam Neeson speaks the language of the lynch mob

The Irish actor seemed not to understand the story he told pressed on an open wound

Images have been rising from the depths of America’s consciousness like swamp creatures in a 1950s B-movie. They are ugly, violent and all about race.

One of them is of perhaps the best known Irishman in the US, Liam Neeson, stalking the mean streets as a white avenger.

In a spontaneous revelation to the London Independent, published on Monday, Neeson volunteered his memories of how he felt and acted after a woman close to him was raped.

“I asked, did she know who it was? No. What colour were they? She said it was a black person.


“I went up and down areas with a cosh hoping I’d be approached by somebody – I’m ashamed to say that – and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some ‘black b*st*rd’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could . . . kill him.”

Lynching was never about vengeance. It was not a Liam Neeson action movie. It was always an act of political terrorism

Neeson made it clear that he was ashamed of this. “It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that.” But he also seemed to think that he was making a general point, not about being a racist, but about the futility of revenge.

It was not at all clear that he grasped just how deeply his moral tale is saturated in the poison of race in America. It did not seem to occur to him that for black Americans he was pressing on an open wound: the history of lynching.

Lynching – the most public and vivid demonstration of white superiority and the worthlessness of black lives – was often accompanied by wild accusations of sexual assault by black men on white women. The ingredients in Neeson’s revelation – white woman, black man, rape, public murder of any random black man as a representative of the guilty race – come from a very familiar recipe.

Neeson said in a subsequent TV interview for ABC that “you sometimes just scratch the surface and you discover this racism and bigotry and it’s there”. He should have known that for black people the surface is their own flayed skins.

Neeson’s story both evoked and deflected a horror. It exemplified racism – all black men were guilty of the crime because the crime itself, in his eyes, was racial: “What colour were they?” It recalled the right of a white man to murder any black man on any pretext: the vagueness of having “a go at me about something” is telling.

But Neeson also deflected this historical reality into something it most emphatically was not, a revenge drama. Lynching was never about vengeance. It was not a Liam Neeson action movie. It was always an act of political terrorism, a visceral reminder to the descendants of slavery that they were still inferior and unfree.

The first and only memorial to the victims of lynching was opened in Montgomery, Alabama less than a year ago, in April 2018. Even the full documentation of this terror is very recent – the key report, Lynching in America, was published only in 2015. It uncovered 4,084 "racial terror lynchings" in 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950, and showed how they worked as "a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimising the entire African American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime".

Particularly relevant to Neeson’s story is the report’s conclusion that “many African Americans were lynched not because they committed a crime or social infraction, and not even because they were accused of doing so, but simply because they were black and present when the preferred party could not be located.” This is exactly what Neeson imagined himself doing.

This vile history exists in two separate streams: a deep wound on the skin of African Americans and a weird sludge of racist triumphalism in the id of white America.

That toxic sludge bubbles up in the most unlikely places. Just as Neeson’s interview was being published, much of the US was transfixed by a medical school yearbook from 1984.

Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, is a deeply civilised man, a distinguished paediatric neurologist who rose to become governor of Virginia. Yet on his personal page from his graduation year at Eastern Virginia Medical School are photographs of two figures: a well-dressed man in blackface and a figure in a Ku Klux Klan robe. One is the "uppity" black man who deserves punishment, the other the white terrorist who will deliver it.

This, remember, is 1984. That’s 20 years after the Civil Rights Act ended racial segregation, 19 years after the Voting Rights Act, 16 years after the murder of Martin Luther King.

And yet Northam’s racist images were not unique even in that yearbook.

CNN found others on the pages of fellow medical graduates: a photo of a man dressed in a low-cut white dress, pearls, a black wig and blackface with the caption, "'Baby Love', who ever thought Diana Ross would make it to medical school?"; one of three men with their faces blackened wearing white dresses, white gloves, pearls and wigs; a photo of a white man, not in blackface but holding a coffee mug bearing the words, "We can't get fired! Slaves have to be sold."

Northam himself added another image, recalling last weekend that he once blackened his face with shoe polish to ape Michael Jackson at a dance contest.

Perhaps what Neeson inadvertently stumbled into is not so much a minefield, more a haunted house. Donald Trump’s open flirtation with white supremacy has stirred up the ghosts of racial violence. They hover over everything now.

On Sunday night, the US had one of its great communal rituals, when people gathered in each other’s houses to watch the Superbowl game in Atlanta. It was supposed to be a moment of togetherness, but it was impossible not to see the ghosts.

The NFL has become an arena for the tensions of race: the footballer Colin Kaepernick's gesture of "taking the knee" instead of standing for the national anthem was in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which itself sees police violence against black people as the contemporary version of lynching.

The history that is buried for most white people is still on the surface for their black fellow citizens

So, before the game began, the NFL presented on the field three people closely associated with Martin Luther King: his daughter Bernice and colleagues Andrew Young and John Lewis.

The gesture was unconvincing to many black Americans, however. These ghosts are not so easily exorcised when there are also so many daily living reminders of systematic inequality, from police killings to a practice of mass incarceration that disproportionately affects the African American community, to the grinding indignity of structural poverty.

The history that is buried for most white people is still on the surface for their black fellow citizens.

Ignorance about this is no less culpable for being, as in Neeson’s case, well-meaning. What he called “horrible, horrible” is not the stuff of personal anecdotes or college japes. It is the history of one of the great crimes at the heart of modernity: slavery and its bitter fruit of terror and injustice.

And that history is by no means over. Its revenants, for most white people, may be in the yellowing pages of old yearbooks or the dark recesses of their own emotions. But for most black people they are walking the streets.