Liam Neeson Ignites Discussion About Revenge

Liam Neeson recently shared a disturbing experience from his past that he drew from for his performance in the movie Cold Pursuit. In an interview with the Independent Neeson described that he had desired to take out vengeance for harm done to a loved one. The story was reported broadly and many people felt it was evidence that Neeson is racist. Further down this page are related links to articles and videos that describe the full details.

Neeson’s story has sparked a discussion about revenge, retaliation, and vengeance. This article explores these topics and also provides links and materials for further reading.

Note: Resources for Life does not condone acts of violence, revenge, or retaliation. These are the antithesis of values we promote such as forgiveness, understanding, and deescalation of conflict.

Retaliation and Gang Violence

In recent years there has been an alarming increase in gang retaliation violence. A 2017 Minneapolis Star Tribune article states: “Charges are elusive in gang-related killings, which are growing in number and brazenness.” [Source]

Here’s an excerpt from that article:

The young man known on the streets as “Tez Blood” was leaning over his best friend’s bullet-pierced body, sobbing, when his cellphone rang with a call from a fellow gang member in prison. “Somebody gonna go to sleep tonight, bro,” he allegedly told the caller in May 2016, using slang for a revenge killing. “Somebody gotta feel how I feel, bro.” Minutes later, his phone went off again. It was another inmate, urging him to avenge the death of their friend…  [More…]

It seems irrational to take out revenge on someone for an act of violence who wasn’t directly involved in that act of violence. Yet, it’s a common occurrence today. Individuals within groups may be targeted in retaliation violence because of their nationality, race, gang affiliation, career choice, or some other aspect of their identity.

Terrorism and Suicide Bombers

In crimes where a perpetrator commits a violent act and harms or kills someone, the justice system is supposed to ensure that the perpetrator is punished – to discourage similar behavior by others and also to provide those impacted with a sense of retribution. After a high-profile trial, sometimes family members are interviewed and asked if they feel that justice was served. Depending on the verdict, those impacted by the crime may say that they feel a sense of relief knowing that someone who caused them pain will be punished.

In acts of terrorism, where the perpetrator intentionally kills themself in the process of committing an act of violence, it’s impossible to have retribution against that person. So, the surviving victims and those impacted are not able to have a sense of retribution. Anger is sometimes redirected to an entire group of people.

When governments are involved, investigations take place to determine the nationality of the terrorists, and then war is waged on the nation they are from. This unfortunately results in innocent people being harmed who had nothing to do with the original terrorist act. For example, the war in Afghanistan has resulted in 31,000 civilians being killed. [Source] Some people have expressed concern that harming innocent civilians is not justice, but an injustice.

The principle of proportionality suggests that the retaliation for an act should be equivalent in impact to the act one is retaliating for. So, if 2,000 innocent civilians were killed, then a country might consider inflicting equal harm to the country responsible. In the case of the 9/11 retaliation, the response was much greater, and the war on terror expanded around the world.

According to a 2003 study “Tribal warfare: Revenge, retaliation, deterrence” by the AAAS states:

“When a nation goes to war against another nation, it may be merely re-enacting an event as old as humanity itself…” [Source]

Retaliation Against Police

There have been many retaliation ambush killings of police in the United States recently. The 2016 Dallas shooting was one of the worst attacks in history resulting in 12 officers being shot. These are said to be revenge for police killings of unarmed black people. Some of the police who are killed in these retaliatory attacks are officers of color. While seemingly racially motivated or based, the retaliation attacks are on police as a group – regardless of an officer’s race.

Like gang retaliation, these killings attack innocent people who were not involved with the action being paid back. The thinking is “your group harmed someone in our group so we’re paying it back.” It’s the same mentality that drives retaliatory gang violence or waging war against a terrorist group’s country of origin.

Gran Torino

In the movie Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood stars as a bitter, angry, racist, and bigoted man who became so from his life experiences. The movie depicts retaliatory gang violence and racially motivated violence with some unexpected alliances and outcomes. The portrayal of vengeance and retaliation in the movie is complex and thought-provoking. It’s definitely worth watching for anyone interested in thinking more deeply about these topics. [Watch Now]


The experience that Liam Neeson spoke of is something that is an ugly part of human nature. While our initial response to his experience and thought process is disgust, disbelief, and bewilderment, when we take a step back and look at the context it becomes a bit more understandable – even if it isn’t rational, reasonable, or justifiable.


The articles below are in chronological order with the most recent at the top.

  • TRT World, 8 Feb 2019 at ~8AM CST. “Fellow actors defend Liam Neeson over controversial comments” by an unknown author. Excerpt: “Neeson’s controversial comments were made in an interview to promote his new thriller Cold Pursuit, about a father seeking revenge after his son is murdered by a drug gang. The New York red carpet event on Tuesday for the film was canceled in the wake of the interview. Neeson’s appearance Friday night on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert – a top US talk show – has also reportedly been canceled.” [More…]
  • The Guardian, 8 Feb 2019 at 10:55 EST. “Liam Neeson started a vital debate. To condemn him is to end it” by John Barnes. Excerpt: “Everyone seems to have had their say on the Liam Neeson’s “racist” interview, including me. I seem to be one of very few people defending him, and I’d like to explain why. I have been accused of being an apologist for a racist, but let me start off by saying that I’m sure that Neeson is as unconsciously racially biased as the next person. Myself included. This is perfectly understandable when you consider the value and worth ascribed to different groups by our society. This is deeply ingrained in our history, literature, news reporting and beyond – whether it’s Muslim grooming gangs, Nigerian conmen or Jamaican drug dealers. On first hearing the Neeson story I had the same reaction that most people seem to have had. I was appalled. Then, after listening to the whole interview and taking some time to reflect on how this story fits in with my views on race and racism, my interpretation changed.” [More…]
  • The Irish Times, 8 Feb 2019 at ~5AM CST. “Liam Neeson is not a ‘bigot’, says Whoopi Goldberg” by an unknown author. Excerpt: “Whoopi Goldberg has defended Liam Neeson in the wake of a controversy over racially charged comments made by the Irish actor. The star of Sister Act insisted Neeson was not a racist, saying she had known Neeson for a very long time and he was not a “bigot”. Earlier this week, Neeson has told a journalist that, following the rape of a friend, he went out with a cosh with a mind to kill, in his words, a “black b*st*rd”. The actor, who was promoting his upcoming revenge thriller Cold Pursuit, went on to explain that, as days passed and he calmed down, he realised the wrongness of his actions.” [More…]
  • BBC, 4 Feb 2019. “Liam Neeson film’s red carpet event cancelled amid racism row” by an unknown author. Excerpt: “The New York red carpet opening of Liam Neeson’s latest film has been cancelled amid a row over his comments that he once wanted to kill a random black man after someone close to him was raped. Reporters were told the red carpet part of the Cold Pursuit premiere was being pulled with just two hours’ notice. Neeson has denied he is racist but the remarks, published by The Independent on Monday, sparked an outcry.” [More…]
  • CNN, 5 Feb 2019. “Liam Neeson: ‘I’m not racist’” by Lisa Respers France and Megan Thomas. Excerpt: “Liam Neeson appeared on “Good Morning America” on Tuesday in the wake of controversy over his saying he contemplated carrying out a racist revenge attack after someone close to him was raped. “I’m not racist,” Neeson said. “This was nearly 40 years ago.” The actor reiterated a story he shared in an interview with The Independent during a press tour for his new movie, “Cold Pursuit,” which he said Tuesday is a dark comedy about revenge.” [More…]
  • Independent, 4 Feb 2019. “Liam Neeson interview: Rape, race and how I learnt revenge doesn’t work” by Clémence Michallon. Excerpt: “Liam Neeson is sitting in an armchair with a flask of tea at his side. We are in the sprawling suite of a Manhattan hotel to talk about his latest film, Cold Pursuit. Just as he has in a number of roles since he became an action hero in his fifties, Neeson plays an everyman hell-bent on revenge. Yet here in the rigid, conveyor-belt atmosphere of the celebrity junket, the 66-year-old star of Taken is about to recount a disturbing incident from his past, a confession that he’s never made before. It will involve how he learnt about the rape of someone close to him many years ago, how he roamed the streets for a week afterwards carrying with him a cosh and brutal, racist thoughts, and how this taught him that violence and revenge do not work.” [More…]


The videos below are in chronological order with the most recent at the top.

ABC News (6 Feb 2019)

TODAY (6 Feb 2019)

CBS Evening News (5 Feb 2019)

CNN (5 Feb 2019)

Good Morning America (5 Feb 2019)

The View (5 Feb 2019)