TO THE GREAT relief of all the good people in peaceful Braddock Heights, Md., last weekend's gathering of robed Ku Klux Klansmen was a dud in every sense of the word. The "rally" turned out to be as small as the minds under the sheets, who were out-numbered more than 2 to 1 at their non-event by newspaper and television people, curiosity seekers and (presumably) undercover agents. With the exception of the heavy press coverage -- and with luck and thought, maybe that can remain an exception -- the doings in Frederick County apparently were similar in lack of substance or size to past rallies in nearby Carroll County.

There is always some fear and suspicion that these crude and foolish sideshows are barometers of racism in its many forms, which is a reason for monitoring them. The other side of the coin, of course, is that the more public attention these doings attract, the more likely they are to lure weak and/or bullyish people in search of attention.

That was the dilemma facing the 1,500 residents of Braddock Heights and, while caught in the middle, they wound up reacting well.

Politicians, civic leaders, ministers and local editors recognized -- many reluctantly -- that they could not prevent a peaceful assembly. Instead, they wrote and talked about maintaining peace; the commissioners issued a proclamation of brotherhood, and 16 churches held prayer vigils and rang their bells throughout the evening. Initially, some state police officials had expressed concern that the community might overreact and play into the hands of the rally organizers; it didn't, and the balance that was struck should not be lost on those who cover the news.