Rosie O'Donnell Takes Fire in the Debate Over 9/11

Last week, Rosie O'Donnell crossed a bright red line in the world of broadcast media: The outspoken actress and comedienne suggested that 9/11 was an "inside job." She implied -- never stating it outright -- that the World Trade Center was destroyed by the Bush administration in order to start a permanent war and also to cover up for the Enron scandal (the story goes that the IRS had records of all sorts of corporate malfeasance locked up in World Trade Center Tower 7, which was brought down in order to stymie investigations).

The reaction was fast, furious and predictable. Fox News host Bill O'Reilly called for O'Donnell's ouster, the National Review suggested she was insane and a host of right-wing bloggers held up the incident as emblematic of the way liberals think about national security. Right-wing talk-show host Joe Scarborough wondered if Rosie would bring about the end of "The View" host Barbara Walters' decades-long TV career. An (unscientific) opinion poll by America Online was swamped with more than a quarter of a million respondents; almost twice as many said that Rosie had "crossed a line" and should be fired than believed that O'Donnell's comments should be protected because "it's free speech."

Obscured by the predictable brouhaha were the rest of O'Donnell's comments. The discussion started with a debate about the British sailors being held by Iran. Even as some of the bastions of our supposedly "liberal" media have uncritically accepted the narrative that Iran today poses a threat like Nazi Germany did in the 1930s, O'Donnell, a TV personality, asked: "Historically, have governments ever faked incidents or incited incidents in order to get them into wars?"

She said: "In America we are fed propaganda, and if you want to know what's happening in the world go outside of the U.S. media because it's owned by four corporations. One of them is this one (ABC)." "Go outside of the country to find out what's going on in our own country," she urged an audience of millions of security-moms tuned into America's favorite coffee klatch, "because it's frightening."

"I think Democracy is threatened in a way it hasn't been in 200 years and if America doesn't stand up, we're in big trouble," she said. (You can watch the segment here.)

Of course, it wasn't her first brush with controversy on the show. In her short stint on "The View," O'Donnell has called for Bush's impeachment, argued that the trial of Saddam Hussein was a joke and joined most of the world's media in laughing at the Bush administration's claim that accused al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had confessed to every dastardly act committed since the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand started World War I.

With those comments, O'Donnell displayed the courage that's made her a nemesis to the right and a welcome voice for progressives. Joining Keith Olbermann, O'Donnell's unapologetic skepticism toward the conventional TV talk-show wisdom fills a yawning void in the commercial media;
Rosie and a very few others fill a gap left by a timid and often-complicit opposition party, one comfortable with the premise of American empire, and a lick spittle corporate media too deeply vested in the system to raise questions about it. They should be commended.

At the same time, relying on pampered celebrities to "speak truth to power" has inherent pitfalls. Rosie O'Donnell is not someone who has studied U.S. foreign policy like a Noam Chomsky, or the history of empire like Chalmers Johnson; she's someone trying to piece together what's happened in her country since 9/11, just like millions of other Americans.

And like millions of other Americans, she has apparently rejected the idea that the United States could experience real "blow-back" after decades of aggressive bullying in the Middle East. The rest of her comments on that day's show represented the worst of the left's conspiratorial tendencies; Rosie ran with the great intellectual fallacy that supports the 9/11 "Truth" movement: Anything not adequately explained by the official investigations into 9/11 are de facto evidence of an inside job:

"I do believe it's the first time in history that fire has melted steel," she said. "I do believe that it defies physics for the World Trade Center Building 7, which collapsed in on itself, it is impossible for a building to fall the way it fell without explosives being involved -- World Trade Center 7.

"One and two got hit by planes, 7 miraculously [for] the first time in history, steel was melted by fire -- it is physically impossible.

"I don't know, but to say we don't know and it was imploded in a demolition is beyond ignorant. Look at the films, get a physics expert here from Yale, from Harvard -- pick the school, it defies reason."

Nobody knows the precise sequence of events that brought Building 7 down, but claiming that the collapse defied physics is patently ridiculous. (Popular Mechanics, Public Enemy #1 for the 9/11 Truth crowd, refuted O'Donnell's specific claims.) What's more, Rosie's self-described "rants" support some of the prevalent right-wing story lines about liberals: that they're extremists, that they're defined by their fringe and led by out-of-touch Hollywood elites.

What's unfortunate about the incident -- and others involving celebrities jumping on the 9/11 conspiracy theory bandwagon -- is the opportunity cost: What might have led to a challenging debate about the close ties between the Bush administration and terrorist financiers, or about the United States' unshakable relationship with the Saudi Royal family or the nature of our energy policy or the toll of American militarism emerged instead as an easily-refuted argument based, at the end of the day, on a talk-show host's knowledge about the melting point of steel.

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