Is there an example in American history of the police reacting to a radical threat and not making things worse? From the abolitionists to the anarchists to the communists, and in more recent memory from the Black Liberation Army to the Symbionese Liberation Army to the Weather Underground, we’ve never lacked for a few revolutionaries willing to kill people and blow up buildings to make their point about how corrupt the country was. After which, the inevitable government crackdown–carried out to the applause of a grateful, fearful nation–did far more damage than the revolutionaries ever could’ve, making their point about corruption for them.

And I’m not even talking about 9/11. Yet.

The worst radical threat in U.S. history, though, is the one the government did almost nothing about. The KKK lynched people by the hundreds, burned buildings and churches, and generally terrorized America for decades in the 19th and 20th centuries. At its peak in 1925, it claimed 4 million members, and 30,000 marched proudly in Washington, in a show of how clueless your government can be about who’s dangerous and who isn’t.

The KKK wasn’t stopped by the police or prosecutors, as an important new exhibit in Raleigh makes clear. Civil rights leaders and ordinary people are what brought it to its knees.

However, I don’t think that will be the takeaway for schoolkids if they’re shuffled quickly through it. I suspect their one big thought will be: Man, there’s terrorists everywhere. What we need is better spies, stat.

They watch a lot of TV.

Maybe I don’t have enough faith in the kids. But after I spent 90 minutes viewing the exhibit one day and went away thinking there was a lot of thought-provoking history within The Enemy Within, it occurred to me that I’m not an eighth grader. And when I looked at the promotional materials from Exploris and at the International Spy Museum’s Web site (, I realized eighth graders are the target audience–complete with teaching guides.

At that age, unless they’re awfully precocious and their parents or teacher very well-versed, what they’ll see is some scary moments ripped out of their context–some scary because the radicals were scary, some scary because the crackdown was scary–but with very little of the background information that would help distinguish between the real abuses that turned some 1880s immigrants into anarchists and eventually (a handful of them) into would-be terrorists, and the imagined abuses that turned Timothy McVeigh into an Oklahoma City bomber.

It is instructive, right off the bat, to be reminded that the worst episode of violence ever perpetrated against the American government was in 1814, when British troops occupied the nation’s capitol and burned every public building to the ground.

Who were the terrorists and who were the freedom fighters then? A bulletin published by the London Times is reproduced in the exhibit: “Washington–the proud seat of that nest of traitors…captured…and all its public buildings destroyed … these are indeed impressive lessons….”

There are two sides to everything, in other words.

But for the next 100 years, the exhibit’s just a race through time. Native Americans scourged? It’s mentioned. (With “loss of innocent life on both sides.”) Immigrants attacked? “Bloody Kansas”? Hope you know what they are. And where’s John Brown, come to think of it? Not to mention the Civil War.

OK, it’s an exhibit, but when we’re suddenly confronted with Big Bill Haywood and the Industrial Workers of the World, and the first “Red Scare,” and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s infamous “raids” in 1919, is the correct takeaway lesson that the government must always be careful not to overreact?

That’s the lesson the exhibit teaches. In 1919, after six bombs went off in various places (including one in Palmer’s front yard), killing two, Palmer ordered a nationwide roundup of suspected radicals. His newly formed “federal bureau” coerced thousands of confessions (in many cases from people who spoke no English), and Palmer ordered 4,000 people deported.

(Here’s somebody the kids should study. An Assistant Secretary of Labor named Louis F. Post stepped in and, braving impeachment threats from Congress, cancelled 3,500 deportations for lack of evidence. I’d like to know more about him.)

There’s good footage in the exhibit of federal agents rounding up old ladies and men with beards and violins. It was a huge overreaction. Be careful!

The lesson not taught, though, is that unless the government is sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, workers and other underdogs with their grievances–and is not on the side of the fat cats, the factory overlords and the slumlords–it’s absolutely going to overreact.

Just like it did in 1919, after a century of having crushed labor, bashed unions and being in the industrialists’ pockets. Radicals in the country? A. Mitchell Palmer took that personally–especially after that bomb on his lawn.

The exhibit moves on to consider McCarthyism (briefly–it was another big overreaction), and then we find ourselves in the ’60s and ’70s, and the radicals are everywhere because of Jim Crow, male hegemony and Vietnam.

Again, however, we see a lot about the effects–the violence–but not much about the back-story.

Millions of Americans, for example, marched peacefully against our war on Vietnam. Yes, many were talking revolution against an American government that was so out of touch with reality, so corrupt and so racist that it could justify killing a million Vietnamese people for no discernible purpose whatsoever. But a political and cultural revolution, not an armed uprising.

A few loonies went too far, though, and started the Weather Underground, and the BLA and the SLA and killed some people. Not millions, but a couple dozen.

Well, the FBI responds with Cointelpro, infiltrating student groups and actually fomenting violence so they could catch it in the act. Yet another big boo-boo of an overreaction, especially when radicals broke into an FBI office in Pennsylvania and liberated the documents that proved it.

It’s all in the exhibit, sort of–in the fine print. But what’s not there is why people were radicalized in the first place, which was the fact that the government wasn’t just turning a blind eye to injustice, it was the cause of injustice.

When people can’t turn to the government for a redress of grievances, in the language of the First Amendment, a few will tend to take things into their own hands.

And then the government will go crazy and go after not just the loonies but the masses–because it can’t tell the difference.

So, finally, the exhibit comes to 9/11, and a post-9/11 film from the Spy Museum folks (two ex-CIA directors are on its board of directors) that is so laughably off-key today that somebody had the good sense to put up a disclaimer on the exit, saying it reflects the times in which it was made. “The dialogue continues,” is the chirpy last word.

Yes, it does, but a dialogue about what?

The unmistakable message of the 9/11 film is that, given the history of violent loonies in America and the fact that modern weaponry makes them far more dangerous than ever before, we must “recalibrate our response” and go get the terrorists before they get us.

This means profiling (“There are no Presbyterians in Al Qaeda,” one expert assures us) and data-mining and assuming that some people are guilty because “that’s the only way we’re gonna get lucky” and catch ’em before they can destroy us.

“We are under siege.” “Our enemies are in our own back yard.” That’s what the film says. And that’s what a cursory reading of the exhibit says, too.

So the message is, OK, government’s messed up before, so we gotta do it better going forward.

But the real dialogue should be about this question: After an act an violence, given how incompetent our government has shown itself to be about finding the violent terrorist needle in the haystack of unhappy, disadvantaged citizens, would we be better off turning it loose? Or should we just admit that nothing good will come of it and turn our attention to things like better airport screening, more security around chemical plants, and no easy targets like nuclear plants and their swimming pools full of fuel rods?

Kids, get your teachers to talk about that.

Parents, do go to this exhibit, but don’t take your kids unless they know a lot of history or you’re prepared to teach it to them. Or know for sure that the teacher will.

Because inevitably, the discussion will turn to the aftermath of 9/11, and the ongoing “war on terror.” How’s that hunt for Osama going again?

The Enemy Within: Terror in America runs through Nov. 26 at Exploris Museum, 201 E. Hargett St. in downtown Raleigh, in the IMAX theater building. The exhibit has a separate admission of $5, lower if purchased with a museum or IMAX film ticket.

9/11 events at Exploris

Saturday, Sept. 9
Community Day: A Tribute to Local Heroes
11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 10
Community Forum:
“The Current State of Homeland Security in North Carolina”
2-4 p.m.

Monday, Sept. 11
Fifth anniversary commemoration
7:45-10 a.m.