Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11, 2010: Let's Stop Calling It 'Ground Zero'

I've always been offended by the term "Ground Zero" (usually rendered with cap G and Z) that the media too readily adopted nine years ago as shorthand for the eight-acre site of the World Trade Center ruins in Lower Manhattan.

Why? Mainly because "ground zero" is a term, coined by the military and popularized during the Cold War, that specifically referred to the target area for the blast of a nuclear bomb.

How did that term become the way we refer to the site of the World Trade Center catastrophe?

Is it because the precise words "World Trade Center site" somehow lack emotion and drama? Or does "World Trade Center site" contain too many syllables in a simplistic time, and have the media have become so uncouth that five syllables are too burdensome, and three are easier, or more useful for a slogan?

This isn't a complaint of one of those grammar-usage schoolmarms that so afflict the public discussion of written language, perpetually "separating flyshit from pepper" (in the immortal words of some unknown copy editor).

Rather it is just a plea to call things by their right names.

I knew the World Trade Center very well, and worked there during the second half of the 1980s at the Wall Street Journal building, which was just across the street from the towers. What joy was in that sprawling World Trade Center complex. No one ever really much admired the architecture of the towers themselves, which were often derided as "the boxes the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building came in." The twin towers gobbled the sky. But what life they had inside them (and in the surrounding buildings). What joy it was to spend a lunch hour outside in their immense psychic shadow, with tens of thousands of people on the streets, grabbing lunch or sitting outside on a spring day.

A year after the attacks, I stood in that vast ugly pit of dark ruins with thousands of others as the names of the dead were read out, one by one, while a single bell tolled with each. With me that day was a firefighter, a friend whose eyes looked to that vast and empty sky with such sorrow that I can barely stand to think about it.

The morning of the attacks, my neighbor in a small town in New Jersey in the near suburbs of New York was working out as usual in the rooftop gym of the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel, which was situated right between the two towers and which also collapsed. He had gone off to work as usual that morning at his job in the World Trade Center, and his wife didn't know all day whether he was alive. When he finally wandered home that night, having staggered in a daze through Manhattan for many hours, he was covered in soot and his clothes were torn. He had no memory of that morning or of how he got home.

At the train station in this New Jersey town of 7,000 residents there was soon placed a small, unobtrusive brass marker inscribed with the names of the seven people from that town who died that day at the World Trade Center. For years afterward, whenever I walked by that marker I thought: In just this one small suburban town, seven people did not come home one day.

Calling the site of those attacks "Ground Zero" is an affront. It cheapens the memory of this place; it allows knaves and fools to scream nonsense about its location -- for example, it gives them traction when it becomes politically expedient for known-nothings to shriek about a plan to build an Islamic community center with a prayer room in some empty coat store that stands amid a jumble of small shops, blocks away from the actual site.

"Ground zero" has no meaning. More to the point, it has no boundaries.

The World Trade Center had boundaries. You could see them clearly -- before, in its glory, and after, in its ruin. I still picture that site on a glorious spring day, teeming with all those people in the sun.

Let's start calling this place what is, and give it the dignity it deserves. It is the World Trade Center site.



Kevin said...

Well said Joe!

Kevin Mitchell

Anonymous said...

The reason that the media will NEVER correctly call it the "WTC" and favor "Ground Zero" is the same reason that they will NEVER correctly call aircraft "cockpit voice recorders" and "flight data recorders" what they are in favor of the term "black boxes", namely, that they prefer selling the sizzle and not the factual steak.

The media did a good job in the past "correcting" themselves on the flags flying at "half-mast" versus "half-staff" and it's too bad they won't do the same here.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Joe - this inapt nomenclature has bothered me for the last decade as well. Your comments are excellent and should offend no one.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Sir:

"Zero" implies nothing. Yet standing at the top of the World Trade Center (Tower Two), with family from Kansas the month before the towers were destroyed, the view was the horizon. From the perspective of "Ground Zero," the view is straight down. To honor those who perished, the view again needs to be the horizon.

Hopefully you will have started a trend.

Fondest regards,
Jack Riepe

ChefNick said...

Hi Joe, since I don't have your email, I'll just leave you this link to my blog post about my last trip to Japan. It's pretty incoherent but it should give a good indication of the state of travel today . . . oh, not for posting on your blog! Just thought it would amuse you. You can leave a comment on it if you want.

I check in to your blog pretty much every day and I've always loved it.

Oh, and 'scuse all the French.

Anonymous said...

My foreign-born wife (who arrived to study in the U.S. on September 10, 2001) asked me recently what "ground zero" means and where it came from. When I told her it was a military term meaning the center of a nuclear explosion, she then asked why we are calling the WTC site "Ground Zero"? I couldn't say.