PATRIOTS OR PARANOIDS? THE CREATION OF A PUBLIC IDENTITY FOR THE MODERN MILITIA MOVEMENT

Open Access
Author:
Norton, Heather M.
Graduate Program:
Speech Communication
Degree:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Dissertation
Date of Defense:
March 14, 2005
Committee Members:
  • James Hogan, Committee Chair
  • Thomas Walter Benson, Committee Member
  • Stephen Howard Browne, Committee Member
  • John David Mccarthy, Committee Member
Keywords:
  • public identity
  • social movement
  • militias
  • Militia Movement
  • news media
Abstract:
The Oklahoma City bombing brought the modern Militia Movement to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. After uncovering accused bomber Timothy McVeigh’s anti-government sentiments and his connections to the Michigan Militia, the federal government and the news media rushed to investigate the dangers posed by this movement—a movement that criticized the government for allegedly seeking to disarm law-abiding Americans and to limit their constitutional rights. The struggle that ensued over the public identity of the militias is the focus of this study. The study investigates the public debate over the militias beginning with the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, and ending in 1996, when the militias disappeared from the headlines. Focusing on the “portraits” of the militias produced by the movement’s own leaders, so-called “watchdog” groups, and the Clinton administration, it examines how a variety of advocates worked to shape public perceptions of the movement. In addition, it considers images of the militias in news coverage and popular culture. Ultimately, the public image of the militias as dangerous domestic terrorists was the product of several factors. First, their perceived involvement in the Oklahoma City bombing fused the militias’ identity with violence and terrorism. Second, the movement’s lack of leadership and rhetorical sophistication gave an advantage to its critics in the public debate. Finally, the media’s reliance upon the watchdog groups for “expert testimony” gave the militias’ critics a decided advantage in the contest to shape public perception of the movement. In exploring the contest over the militias’ public image, this study reveals the difficulties faced by radical social movements in establishing a positive public image in mainstream news media and the power of professional watchdog groups and mainstream politicians in shaping media coverage.