In the wake of violent clashes between protesters last August in Charlottesville, many people demanded a federal crackdown on suspected dangerous extremists. The federal government has previously carried out similar heavy-handed suppression efforts with disastrous results. Rather than intellectually purifying the nation, such efforts are far more likely to turn nitwits into martyrs.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Washington’s efforts to stomp out bad ideas spawned federal crime waves. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program utterly exempted itself from the Constitution and federal, state, and local laws. The FBI set up its own 250-member Klan organization “to attract membership away from the United Klans of America,” as a 1976 Senate report noted. One federally funded informant admitted that he and other Klansmen had “beaten people severely, had boarded buses and kicked people off; had went [sic] in restaurants and beaten them with blackjacks, chains, pistols.” Other FBI COINTELPRO operations sought to destroy black activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. One FBI office boasted of spurring “shootings, beatings, and a high degree of unrest … in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego.” Because the instigators were federal agents, they faced no criminal penalty for behavior that would have sent other Americans to prison.
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