‘Every normal man,” wrote H. L. Mencken, “must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” Given that his subject was modern poetry, he can be forgiven the impulse. But we might politely decline to join him. There are few occasions on which the raising of a black flag has been an overture to something pretty, and a great many on which it has augured something ill. Black flags are harbingers of chaos.
The recent events in the Arab world are no exception. The barbarism in Egypt and Libya pushed back into view the nefarious purposes to which black flags are most commonly deployed. Having scaled the walls of the American embassy compound in Cairo on September 11, protesters ripped down Old Glory, set fire to it, and managed to replace it temporarily with their own pennant. At the consulate in Benghazi, marauders put up their flag, murdered the ambassador and three other Americans, and caused as much damage as they could. The unrest has not yet stopped, with U.S. citizens and property being targeted in Lebanon, Yemen, Tunisia, and Syria.
There are, it seems, three main causes in the celebration of which one might elect to hoist a black flag, and all of them are execrable: They are anarchy, piracy, and some unholy combination of jihad and the end of days. The Islamist mobs that have run riot in the past fortnight have managed to combine all three — some feat.
Since the 1990s, black flags have become associated in the Western mind with Muslim extremism, and for good reason. The “black flag of jihad,” as it has been routinely if innovatively described, is now a fixture on Islamist websites, in hostage videos, and at anti-Western demonstrations. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda bear much of the responsibility for this; they were quick to appropriate it as a motif, and it featured prominently in their propaganda both before and after the attacks in 2001, which goes some way to explaining why it is now so widely recognized.
Nonetheless, the modern Islamist movement did not invent it from whole cloth. The “Black Standard” is the traditional flag of Islam — by all accounts a nice little number flew outside of Mohammed’s tent, and it has been de rigueur for those of a more literalist religious bent ever since. It is part of a diad: In Islamic custom, the white flag is the symbol of government and its black counterpart — or “Ar-Raya” — is the banner of the military. As legend has it, when Mohammed returned to Mecca as the conquering hero after eight years in exile, his army carried black flags with the word “Punishment” emblazoned in white. To mark the occasion, this replaced the more traditional inscription, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger.”
In Islam, the black flag runs the gamut, forecasting events from war to the apocalypse. In certain traditions, the Hadiths provide it with a more eschatological role. Most Shiite Muslims believe that it signifies the impending coming of the “Mahdi” — loosely translated as “messiah” — a redeemer who will arrive in the world to rule for an uncertain amount of time and then, eschewing a second term, end the world on the Day of Judgment. Put bluntly, if you see black flags coming from the east, you might well want to run like hell. As well as linking it to the end of days, the Hadiths also hold that armies sporting the black flag will be called upon to fight the “Masih-ad-Dajjal” — or “false messiah.”
That the black flag spells trouble is a rule that applies also to pirates and anarchists, although it should be admitted that their choice of color is less divinely inspired and more practical. In this instance, black flags are primarily designed to contrast with other flags. Whereas the white flag denotes immediate surrender, the black flag signifies that its bearer will fight to the death. Pirates and anarchists thus employed their pennons primarily as a warning sign. As outlaws, they often had little to obtain in surrender but execution, and to broadcast that fact could be efficacious in convincing their enemies to retreat or to give up without a struggle. To paraphrase James Baldwin, the most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose. He will think nothing of hoisting the black flag and slitting throats, and it behooves him to convey that to his enemies.
As men unconstrained by laws or by the Rules of Engagement are dangerous, so are men without nations. The black flag stands in contrast to the colorful insignia of the nation state, purposively setting its adherents outside the international order and its conventions. Except in Islam, the black flag is, perhaps, the absence of a flag as much as a flag itself; a sly means by which someone indicates that he renounces the established order and submits to no authority.
Such symbolism became popular in the punk-rock movement, with bands such as Black Flag and Anti-Flag using black banderoles to present themselves as rebels and, in the case of the former, as haters of the police. Indeed, the audiences at Black Flag concerts got the message and behaved accordingly, to an extent sufficient to encourage a significant police presence each time the band played and to prompt the lead singer to say that the establishment “probably had reason to be scared.”
This secular black-flag tradition has a long — and bloody — heritage. During the French Revolution, the black pennant was the symbol of the Paris Commune, and it waved happily over such atrocities as the September Massacres, the Reign of Terror, and the Assault on the Tuileries. Such was its success that Louise Michel, the “French grande dame of anarchy,” resurrected it during the second Paris Commune of 1871. “Black,” she averred, “is the flag of strikes and the flag of those who are hungry.” She made no mention of violence, but then such types tend not to.
Troublemakers around the world agreed with Michel: Black was very chic. In 1881, an anarchist paper called the Black International sprang up in London; in Chicago, participants in an 1884 anarchist protest carried black banderoles, explaining that they bore “the fearful symbol of hunger, misery, and death”; and a Chinese bandit group called the “Black flag army” invaded Vietnam.
In the 20th century, Parisian students carried black flags during the 1968 General Strike, and were echoed in Chicago by protesters at the Democratic National Convention. They channeled Nestor Makhno, whose anarchist “Black Army” carried black flags into battle during the Russian Revolution, and the Mexican revolutionist Emiliano Zapata, who chose a black flag as his army’s marching accessory in the 1910 uprising. Most recently, Occupy Wall Street’s anarchist wing styled itself after the “Black Bloc” of 1980s German autonomism and took to smashing windows and looting. Apparently, you can have your anarchy in any color you like — as long as it’s black.
We are better off when the seas are free, when order trumps anarchy, and when jihad is resisted in favor of liberty. H. L. Mencken liked nothing more than to tweak polite society and its mores, but had he examined the subject more closely his savage wit would likely have been trained as fiercely upon the bearers of black flags as it was on everybody else. Black flags serve as a prelude to bedlam. It is the job of civilization to relegate them to the bottom of the staff.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.