Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
- from Shelley, Ozymandias (1818)
The vocabulary of "ground zero" is a misnomer as applied to the site of the World Trade Center. Sixteen acres of ruin register as dramatic enough from a human perspective, coupled to the statistics of death and trauma which ripple endlessly from it. But those familiar with the reality of Trident recognize the need for more substantial geographical scales to measure the effects of nuclear weapons. For all its horror, this was a miniature of destruction, a fragment of the apocalypse.
Yet it is not in a comparison of physical effects that the incomprehensibility of Trident has its greatest resonance. Clearly the protocols of emergency response were revealed to be largely inadequate for the damage that the city of New York suffered. Specialized fire and rescue units were almost entirely decimated; communications and transportation massively disfigured; commuters of the morning became the refugees of the afternoon. The implications here are clear enough as soon as one posits the use of a single 475 kiloton warhead.
But it is in the definitions of terrorism that the terrible gift of September 11 is most obvious. We are now freed from the limits of our fantasies in imagining the dimensions of chronic fear. Trident has always been the essence of terror, holding as it does all creation at risk. Our defense against it was to render it abstract, unthinkable. But we are now faced with the paradox of judging the lesser terror of a suicidal crime as being unacceptable, while the immeasurably greater threat of Trident remains to be tolerated, even celebrated, as a source of our illusory security.
Anthrax is Trident in an envelope, at least in regard to the sense of instability it produces. Like the box cutters of the hijackers, the ordinary turns fatal in a single moment. There are no limits to the fragility of things, memories as well as lives. What does the archivist live for when there will be no one to read the documents she preserves? And how does one register a death toll when almost all the bodies have vanished? There is a yearning to see the corpses lining a morgue, an assurance of their reality, a justification for our madness.
Trident will not allow for posted lists of the missing or the grief of survivors. There is a warning in the dimensions of sorrow that last month's events created. A nuclear holocaust will erase even that painful trace of human response. There will be no occasion for distant sympathy or condolences or charity. An actual ground zero by definition renders all things void.
How are we left, then? As our society evolves into an Orwellian state of permanent war for which there are no announced boundaries, we accumulate further justifications for resistance to Trident as both machine and perception. The weapon has already done its work. What remains is to reconstruct a human community in which all terror is abjured, whatever its source. If not, we risk realizing T.S. Eliot's prediction of the world's whimpering end. No bang will be necessary.
-18 October 2001