Why calling Liam Neeson a racist is just avoiding the issue

The one uncontroversial thing to say about the Liam Neeson interview is that he probably wishes he'd never given it.

The latest twist, after the Northern Irish-born Hollywood A-lister told a journalist he had wanted to kill a 'black b****d' after a black man raped a friend of his, is that the New York premiere of his latest film has been cancelled. Terrified promoters are waiting to see whether the furore hits box office receipts.

Liam Neeson has been accused of racism following remarks in an interview.Reuters

Neeson gave an interview to The Independent on Monday about action thriller Cold Pursuit. Speaking of the 'primal' urge for revenge, he became uncomfortably honest. A bog-standard puff piece of the kind actors can do in their sleep became confessional. He had asked about the culprit, including his colour. On being told he was black, he had gone around with a cosh for a week, hoping to be provoked by a black man so he could retaliate and kill him. He was ashamed of his feelings, confessed to a priest and 'learned a lesson' from it.

That was not enough, however, to save him from social media fury. He's been widely denounced as a violent racist, with the entertainment world speculating about the end of his career. One of his few backers has been John Barnes, the Liverpool footballer who knows racism when he sees it, who mounted a powerfully articulate defence on Sky News. Neeson, he said, had 'told the truth' about how he felt at the time and should not be pilloried for it.

For what it's worth, I think Barnes was right. Neeson has fallen victim to the hyper-sensitive 'triggering' mentality that characterises what passes for serious debate in the social media age. Wanting to kill one black person because another had raped a friend – no matter how much regretted or how long ago – is enough to secure him eternal damnation in the court of public opinion. No matter that if his friend's attacker had been English, or Spanish, his rage would have transferred itself to random representatives of those nations: it's racism and that's that, because of his use of the expression 'black b****d'.

So let's acknowledge the depth and power of the racism that pervades culture on both sides of the Atlantic. But at the same time, let's recognise the shoddy thinking driving this array of pitchforks and flaming torches. We cannot say racism wasn't part of his motivation. But dismissing him as 'just a racist' far too conveniently places Neeson's problem at a manageable distance from our own. And here's where truth-telling – of the kind he presumably now so regrets – is really important.

Anger makes people do terrible things. Those who suffer them are not necessarily those who deserve it. We don't know what to do with our rage, so we displace it to a more convenient target. Civilians die in war because enemy soldiers are too hard to find or kill.

A good few years ago an acquaintance of mine had a furious argument with his girlfriend. He stormed out of the house and saw someone across the road – a stranger – getting into his car. He went over and savagely beat him. He was lucky to escape a prison sentence. Was it right? Of course not. Was it understandable? Here's where Liam Neeson went wrong. Speaking of a revenge thriller in which his character is consumed by anger, he tried to explain it with an illustration from his own past. He should, for the sake of a quiet life, have tut-tutted and said how very wicked the man was. Instead, he told the truth – which is that there are depths of anger in us that the refined sensibilities of our liberal columnists and Twitter warriors are simply not equipped to chart. And the dishonesty enforced on us by our treatment of the rare truth-teller serves no one at all.

We ought, at least, to be able to acknowledge to ourselves our potential for rage. Some of Neeson's films, like the Taken franchise, are predicated on it. They are popular precisely because we are angry that bad people get away with it and we want them to suffer. And we ought to be able to look into our own hearts. So in that spirit of honesty: I am myself an unashamed beta male, slight of build and mild of manner. Any scuffle in which I were to be involved would be less like Rocky and more like Bridget Jones' Diary, where Hugh Grant and Colin Firth duke it out in scenes of comical ineptitude. But yes, even I recognise that potential for rage in me. I have felt it. I suspect, given motive and opportunity, it's in all of us.

And this is very biblical. In Genesis 4, after God has inexplicably rejected his sacrifice in favour of his brother Abel's, he says to Cain: 'Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be acccepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door: it desires to have you, but you must master it' (6-7).

That is what Neeson faced, all those years ago: sin, crouching like a malevolent beast, ready to pounce on him if he showed any weakness. He failed, and he repented and received absolution from his priest. Our culture is not so kind – but unless we acknowledge the sin crouching by our own doors, we will be defenceless against it.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods