Everybody loves a good media event, particularly when you can hiss the villain. Which may help explain the alarms, protests and general throat-clearing over the projected visit of those sheet-wrapped symbols of timeless tunnel vision, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

A dozen organizations ranging from the American Muslim Mission to the Greater Washington Board of Trade have rushed to announce that the Klan's visit is not a good idea. The Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington has called for a repudiation of racism. Something called the Ad Hoc Coalition for Community Unity earlier this month staged a week of food collection and distribution, education and prayer, all because the Klan is coming. Or says it is.

Two weeks ago, we got a taste of the sort of menace we're facing. Three hundred policemen and 140 newsmen showed up to guard and document an announced Klan rally in Montgomery County. Exactly 24 Klansmen showed up. Rarely has so much attention been paid by so many to so few.

The next onslaught comes tomorrow when, if all goes well, possibly 200 Klansmen will assemble at the Capitol and march down Pennsylvania Avenue to Lafayette Park in their pointy-headed robes, hymning the joys of Kleagle and Klavern and the sanctity of the racial strain. Just why this should trigger alarm remains puzzling. Paranoiacs are not unknown in Washington, and these will at least be easy to spot.

Taking them seriously ought to be more difficult. Shelter as it may the occasional yahoo prone to violence, the Klan has been irrelevant as a political and cultural force for more than half a century, despite remaining the bogeyman of the popular press.

Born in 1866 in Pulaski, Tenn., as a secret society of Confederate veterans, it sprang, like the college fraternities launched in the same era, from the overblown romanticism of the age. Imbued with a sense of mystical brotherhood and divine mission, Klansmen swore to protect "all that is chivalric in conduct, noble in sentiment, generous in manhood and patriotic in purpose."

But they soon spread throughout the South on the less-than-chivalrous mission of recapturing political power through intimidation of the Negro vote. Blacks who voted were visited by nightriders in white robes and hooded masks, often waving skeleton hands and skulls, and speaking in mystical, indecipherable sounds. Where appeals to superstition failed, they yielded to the more implicit language of the burning cross, the knife and the gun. At one time or another, historians estimate, some 550,000 men were united throughout the South under the loose confederation known as the Ku Klux Klan. The organization figured strongly in overturning black political rule in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

It also, however, encountered problems. The hooded masks provided cover for random violence unconnected with the organization's expressed political role. As such acts multiplied, upper-class leaders deserted the Klan, and in 1869 the first Grand Wizard, former Confederate Cavalry Gen. Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, ordered the organization disbanded as a formal order of hooded riders. Terrorism against blacks continued, but not under the aegis of the Klan.

A second Klan, formed in Atlanta in 1915, adopted the robes and rituals of the first Klan but was broader in scope. Fueled by the intense nationalism of World War I and cultural fears triggered by the era's flood of immigrants through Ellis Island, it focused resentment against all foreign elements, real or imagined.

In 1920, on the wings of a coast-to-coast membership canvass launched by two professional publicity agents and the mystique of D. W. Griffith's Klan-minded 1915 film classic, "Birth of a Nation," the Klan went nationwide. By 1925, some 4 million to 5 million Americans were enrolled as members. They would one day include such future public figures as Hugo Black of Alabama, later justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Robert Byrd of West Virginia, now minority leader of the U.S. Senate.

Klansmen throughout the country denounced and occasionally abducted and whipped Negroes, bootleggers, adulterers, pacifists, Jews, radicals, Catholics, evolutionists and others whose race, beliefs or behavior failed to conform with the Klan's narrow notion of Americanism. Though its membership was largely confined to the lower middle class in small rural towns, the Klan was potent enough to claim prominent business and political allies and was occasionally welcomed by clergymen as an agency of moral censorship.

National prosperity after 1925 reduced the social jealousies on which the Klan fed, and membership rapidly declined. Though it surfaced again from time to time, the Klan has never again proved more than a tiny extremist offshoot of the red-neck segregationist right. Even during the turbulent civil rights days of the 1960s, when Klan membership rose briefly to 40,000, the organization stood remote from the southern political mainstream, denounced by governors who chose less spectacular means to hobble the advance of Negro rights.

Despite its organizational impotence, however, the Ku Klux Klan remains among America's most inflammatory symbols: as bone-chilling in its white-robed majesty as a swastika armband or a hangman's noose.

The closer one gets to the Klan, however, the less horrific and more pathetic it appears. Anti-mask laws aimed at the Klan, for example, have revealed the man beneath the hood as usually a paunchy figure with dewlaps and spectacles: a septic tank cleaner, perhaps, or a peddler of termite spray.

In addition, the vigorous marketing of Klan trappings -- rings, highball glasses and KKK belt buckles -- suggests a leadership mentality geared more toward profit than intimidation; one that lures would-be Klansmen -- many of them illiterate, fearful and confused -- with the reassuring insignias of a lodge for the racially insecure.

Finally, like most extremist groups, the Klan constantly undermines itself with the tyranny of its own narrow minds. Multiple Klan factions -- The Knights of the KKK, the Invisible Empire of the KKK, the United Klans of America and others-- squabble over ideological purity and who wears the most authentic dunce cap. Once the scariest horror show in town, the Klan today isn't even good theater.

So why the alarm? There is something in the excited overreaction to the Klan's projected visit as disquieting as the visit itself. For if bigotry is a major force in our society, it is not the bedsheet bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan but the pinstriped variety that masquerades as social exclusiveness. If terrorism is what we're worried about, it's not the nightriding Klan type that stalks our time but the random violence of the street assassin and the explosive alienation of the political terrorist.

Demonstrating against the Klan is too easy. It ignores what the police usually tell us: that the occasional charred cross in a suburban yard or swastika daubed on a synagogue wall is not the work of the Klan but the less-than-tasteless pranksterism of our own children. We march against the Klan in the futile and unconscious wish that what truly worries us--the problem of evil--is as defined and identifiable as a hooded robe. And it almost never is. In the end, the most frightening thing about the Klan is not the organization or its members. It's the shadowy fears they mirror within our own minds and hearts.