FactCheck.org quotes the Oxford English Dictionary which “defines the term ‘red-handed’ as being caught ‘in the very act of crime.’ In fact, one meaning given by the OED is, ‘fresh from the commission of murder or homicide; having the hands red with blood.'” MoveOn wants to play the dictionary-game and “cites a definition of ‘red-handed’ that is milder, saying Merriam-Webster defines the phrase as caught ‘in the act of committing a crime or misdeed.'”
Caught red-handed is usually associated with crime, or at least fingers in the cookie jar. There’s also the proverbial “fingers in the pie” version of being caught red-handed. Then there’s just recent news: getting caught censoring email or manipulating terror alert status or spying on U.S. citizens. Occasionally, the hand is even dripping blood.
But the red hand has so many other meanings. It means stop, don’t litter.It means stop, as in halt. Or it can mean “the jagged edge between the mainstream and non-existence” in Latvian traditional music. For children, a red-hand can have other meanings. It can also be the result of mixing iron oxide, or trying to enter forbidden areas. In war zones, red hands have their own poignancy. There’s even a board game where “green with envy” you “cut through the red tape” and “roll out the red carpet” to sharpen your “gray matter;” “given the green light” you’ll be be “tickled pink” to play Red-Handed®.
In history, the red hand can be a warning, such as the one issued by John Brown to Governor Henry Wise in 1859: “Thy doom is sealed! Beware of the ‘Red Hand‘!” It was a symbol for a Black regiment that fought in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in World War I. In the same war, it was a mark of the “Hun” in anti-German posters. It is also the symbol of Ulster in Northern Ireland, where legend has it that a Chieftain cut off his hand and hurled it forward to win a race, his bloody hand touching the shore before his opponent landed.
Recently, the red hand has been a symbol of political activism, whether for the plight of child soldiers, the dump–Karl Rove movement, stopping local vehicle theft and crime, or protesting against terrorism and violence. Occasionally, it is a plea for help. But it’s also been the symbol of radical movements. During the Vietnam era, it was a symbol calling for strikes against the war.