Ground Zero, Day Zero, and The Day After

As my regular readers will recall, I recently revisited Hiroshima, via German philosopher and anti-nuclear activist Günther Anders’s journal of his own visit there in 1958.  My trip was very rewarding—with the added bonus of being inexpensive, since all it took was the price of a cheap paperbound book.  In a recent post I shared some of those rewards, and in this post and the next few I will share some more—this time in connection not only with the traumatic detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, but also with the traumatic destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, 11 years ago today.  Indeed, revisiting Hiroshima via Anders has helped me to deepen my insight into the traumatic connection between those two traumas themselves, and that is my overall topic now.

Almost immediately after the Twin Towers fell, American media and officialdom began referring to the site where the Towers had stood as “Ground Zero.”  That usage stuck, and today when someone—at least some American–speaks of “Ground Zero” it is safe in almost all everyday contexts to assume that the speaker has that site in Manhattan in mind.  However, the use of that term to designate a single, specific location of special historical significance, did not originate with the events of September 11, 2001.  That was not what the capitalized version, “Ground Zero,” was originally used to signify.  Rather, it was used to refer to Hiroshima, insofar as Hiroshima was the site where a nuclear device was first used as a weapon.  Thus, it was used as the name for the place where what came often to be called simply “the Bomb” was first dropped—so far, the first of  only two times it has ever been dropped, the second and to date last time coming just three days later, when America, having so recently dropped its first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, dropped its second one over Nagasaki

Way back when “Ground Zero” still meant Hiroshima—that is, way back before the September 11 of 11 years ago—in the journal of his visit to the original Ground Zero thirteen years after it became the first Ground Zero, Günther Anders connected that spatial notion with a corresponding temporal one, by writing about the day the Bomb first dropped and calling it “Day Zero” (in the German in which Anders wrote his journal, der Tag Null).  Here is the most relevant entry, which Anders wrote while in Hiroshima on August 6, 1958, the anniversary of that same Day Zero, when Hiroshima became the first Ground Zero (what follows is from page 66 of Hiroshima Ist Überall–“Hiroshima Is Everywhere”–in my own free translation):

Time-reckoning:  The 6th of August 1945 was Day Zero.  This day—the day that proved world-history might have no more days left; in any case, that we now have the capacity to cut through the threads that hold world-history together–inaugurated a new age of world-history.  A new age, the very essence of which is that there may be no more ages.  We are living [in 1958, the year Anders wrote this passage] in Year 13 of this age of disaster.  I was born in Year 43 before it.  Father, whom I buried in 1938, died in the Year 7 before it.  Before it–in another age.

Anders’s name for August 6, 1945, the day the Bomb was first dropped, is most apt.  “Zero” is not itself a quantity, either positive or negative.  Rather, it marks the point at which all quantity vanishes, the null point of quantity.  Just so, Day Zero—as such, that is as “zero”–is not itself one day among all the others.  Rather, Day Zero is the zero point of all days.  It marks, not one day among all the others that belong together within the unity of any given “Day”–in the sense of an Age, a Time (for instance “the Modern Day,” or “the Day of the Internet”)–consisting of a multitude of different days of that same broad Day.  Day Zero is, instead, the null point of all Days, the point at which the Day itself vanishes.

Every day after that, is a day that belongs, paradoxically, to no Day.  Every day “after” Day Zero, “after” the point where the Day itself vanishes, is a day destitute of any Day, any belonging together with others days to make up an Age, a Time.  Every day after Day Zero is thus a timeless day.  After all, zero multiplied by whatever, all the way to and including infinity, is still zero—zilch, nada, nil, naught, nothing, not anything at all.  After Day Zero, every day was just a zero day, day after day after day after day.  A “vast wasteland” (pace Newton Minnow, who one of those days tried to lay claim to that title, not without reason, on behalf of network TV).

Anders lived well into those days after Day Zero, that endlessly vast wasteland of zero days, living through many years of it, as I’ve already noted.  As for me personally, I was born early in the morning of the first day of Year 1, ADZ (After Day Zero), Mountain Standard Time.  Furthermore, today, this day that begins the 12th year after September 11, 2001, CE, we are all living in Year 67, ADZ—assuming, at any rate, that we still live in the same Age Anders, unlike his father, lived to live in, Anders dying as he did in December 1992, CE, which means in Year 47, ADZ.

But do we?  Do we still live today just another of the endless round of zero days that follow after Day Zero? Do we continue to live in the same Age, the very Age of vanishing Ages, the Age that appeared when Hiroshima dis-appeared under the plume of the nuclear mushroom cloud on August 6, 1945, CE?

Or do we live in a different Age—a new one, calling for a new time-reckoning?  Has another Day dawned, one that would truly be a New Day, at last? A truly New Day dawning “after” Day Zero, that Non-Day, when for the first time the possibility of the impossibility of any New Day announced itself?


Perhaps September 11, 2001, CE, was no longer just another zero day After Day Zero.  Perhaps that date is the date of the dawning of a New Day.  The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, who has since died, thought so, in effect.  To combine him with Anders, we could say Baudrillard thought that September 11, 2001, CE, was the day that Day Zero, the day of the cancellation of all further Days, was itself cancelled.  For him, on September 11, 2001, CE, with the collapse of the Twin Towers, history itself was reborn.

If we express what Anders’s points to in speaking of “Day Zero” with regard to the idea of history, we can say that Day Zero was the day history itself was cancelled.  As the Day the Day itself vanished, Day Zero was the Day history as such disappeared, vanishing into the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, to be replaced by the façade of history taken to be just “one damned thing after another,” to borrow a famous or infamous definition I’ve used in this blog before.   For Baudrillard, on September 11, 2001, history—genuine history, in which something new can still happen under the sun—returned.  History returned on that day with a vengeance, as it were.

If Baudrillard is right, then September 1, 2001, was the Day that ended the end of Days that came in on Day Zero.  A New Day dawned.

How fitting that would be!  Then the new “Ground Zero,” the site in Manhattan for which that expression was taken away from Hiroshima, the original “Ground Zero,” would prove, ironically, to be the place where a New Day first dawned, a Day that would at last cancel out Day Zero, from which nothing but an endless string of zero days could follow.  And then, ironically, the Day that first dawned when the new Ground Zero became Ground Zero would no longer be Day Zero any more.  It would be, instead, The Day After.

What remembering September 11, 2001, would then put at issue would be the decision about what Day we live in today.  Do we still live in Zero Day?  Or do we live today in The Day After?

Today, on the 11th anniversary of September 11, 2001, we cannot properly honor the memory of all those who died on September 11, 2001—we cannot render them their due for all we owe them—without giving thought to that decision, continuing to give it thought until that decision itself can be made.  So at least does it seem to me, and I would like to honor their memory, render all those dead their due for what I owe them.

It is toward that end that I offer this post, at any rate—this post, and my promise to continue thinking about these same things in my next post, at least.

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