The Virtues of Burning Crosses and Colored Smoke

From all accounts, last week’s London bombings greatly benefited pro-war factions in the same way that 9-11 did: they gave the Crusaders a new rallying cry. Yet the bombings are also being discounted in the west because their death toll was lower than it might have been.

The subway-and-bus attacks are probably undergoing a similar criticism in bin Laden’s lair: jihadists can count, too.

Far be it for God’s warriors to accept advice from an infidel, but if they would have asked me, I’d have told them that the time has now come to build bombs that emit colored smoke.

9-11 established that holy warriors can carry off imaginative acts of terror, but today anything of a lesser scale undermines their stature. If they’ve got to carry out second-order attacks, they’d be wise to spice them with the gunpowder of controversy. Killing 50 patrons of public transportation is hardly controversial. It’s hard to see much merit–military, technical or propagandistic–in an action like that.

Had smoke bombs been used in London, nobody would be saying, “losses were lighter than we would have anticipated.” The argument would be over whether hundreds, or thousands, would have died had the bombs been loaded with a poisonous gas. Colored smoke would have evoked as much trepidation as explosives did.

Orange or yellow smoke would have asked identical questions about the willingness, readiness and sanity of British determination to win the war in Iraq, take on the life of Israel, and in general, earn a bad name for itself in the Muslim world.

Further, smoke bombs could have been accompanied by a message whose first words could have been, “In the name of Allah, the most merciful”

Color-coded days and cigarette lighter bans, to name a couple of American counter-terrorism measures, already draw ridicule around the globe. Building a security state to protect against brightly-colored smoke would make Big Brother more risible yet.

In a word, smoke bombs would more nearly have yielded a public relations gain, rather than a public relations backlash.

The Christian jihadists of the Ku Klux Klan made no apologies for carrying out mayhem of every kind, but they began to lose their standing, even in the segregated South, after a 1963 church bombing that killed four little girls. They’d have better served their cause by merely burning a cross, as the Klan’s more sensible raiders sometimes did.

The lessons of 9-11 and Madrid are pretty clearly understood in the West today. Europeans and Americans know that if they don’t force their leaders to adopt more respectful postures and policies in the Muslim world, new attacks are possible, any day.

Undistinguished bombings will bolster cultural, religious and military hawks instead of discrediting them. Colored smoke is more persuasive than that.

DICK J. REAVIS is an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at:



















Dick J. Reavis is a Texas journalist and the author of The Ashes of Waco.