Football legend John Barnes has told Sky News he thinks actor Liam Neeson “deserves a medal” for his honesty about once having violent thoughts about killing a black person.
The former England player spoke out in defence of the Hollywood actor, who made the admission in an interview as he spoke about his reaction after a female friend was raped several years ago.
Neeson, 66, said that after the attack he armed himself with a cosh weapon on the streets, hoping someone “would have a go” at him so he could kill them, but said he quickly felt ashamed by his behaviour.
Barnes, who suffered racist abuse during his football career, told Sky News he respected Neeson for telling the truth about his feelings, and that “we are all unconscious racists”.
He said that Neeson was talking about the subject of revenge, explaining why “revenge doesn’t do anyone any good”, and that the Hollywood star cannot be blamed for his thoughts at the time because “this is what society has shown him, that black people do, Muslims do – this is what society has wrongly shown him, this is what the media have wrongly portrayed to him”.
“He went on to say he was ashamed and horrified by the way he felt,” Barnes said. “He’s not ashamed and horrified at wanting to commit the act of revenge, he’s ashamed and horrified because that is what he thought about all black people.”
Barnes said the interview needed to be heard in context.
He continued: “You cannot blame people for thinking Muslims, because of Muslim grooming gangs, Jamaican yardie gangs, then look at Muslims and Jamaicans in a negative light.
“And he’s admitting that that is the way he viewed it. So, for this one black person who raped this woman, he then looked at it from the perspective of all black people are rapists.”
Barnes said that “as much as people are now jumping on this bandwagon of how terrible it is, what he has done is come out and he’s told the truth”.
He continued: “The big problem we have is when people are afraid to admit the way they actually feel…
“I have more respect for him now than if he had come out and said, ‘I view all black people as equal, I just view everybody as equal’.”
Barnes said the actor was being “pilloried” and that people are “now going to be afraid to tell the truth on how they feel”.
“I always say, we are all unconscious racists,” he said. “And he said, unconsciously for a week and a half, that’s how he felt. We have people who have been doing it and keeping it quiet for 20 years, but as long as you don’t admit it then we think everything is okay.”
He added that Neeson was the victim of a “witch hunt”.
Speaking about the reaction to Neeson’s comments – with people calling for the actor to be stripped of his OBE and for a boycott on his films – Barnes said: “So let’s take down that statue of Winston Churchill… who is a white supremacist and a mass murderer.”
He continued: “How is Churchill a hero when he spoke about… he believes in gassing the lesser races. But he’s a hero. And when Liam Neeson comes out and he admits that he was wrong in what he did, whereas Winston Churchill would never admit he was wrong, never, and if he was alive now he would still believe in the superiority of the Aryan race.
“But Liam Neeson – someone who admits that, after a week and a half of thinking what he thought, that he was wrong, which is fine as far as I’m concerned – we’re now pillorying him.”
Barnes said Neeson was talking about something that happened a long time ago, and that the comparison was fair.
Asked for his thoughts on speculation about Neeson’s comments creating a lot of publicity for his upcoming film Cold Pursuit, Barnes replied: “Absolutely not. We are now talking about Liam Neeson never working again, boycotting his films.”
Barnes also criticised the “sensible, intelligent” people who were saying a joke Neeson made in the interview – saying ‘I have a particular set of skills, and I will find you’ – was a serious threat.
The line comes from Neeson’s Taken films.
He finished by saying Neeson’s comments were “positive” and that the actor “should be applauded for admitting, ‘Yes, I was an unconscious racist'”.
“People are going to be afraid of admitting it now because of what’s happened to Liam Neeson,” he said.
Neeson, 66, made his comments during an interview with the Independent to promote Cold Pursuit, and was talking about how he could relate to his character turning to anger.
He said: “It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that.”