Zero Times One

August 15, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Ground zero, the military term. That point at which a nuclear or atomic explosion occurs. Ground zero has not been an adequate enough description for this vast, gaping wound in lower Manhattan and in our heart. The ancient Hindus and the Maya Indians who came upon zero, however, understood that zero is a number, a beginning of numbers.

Zero gives you a way of marking the tenth finger on your hand. Zero expands a lowly worker’s imagination toward a million dollars. Zero transports astronauts toward the infinite. We move toward one from zero. Here we are in summer anticipating one. In cultures all over the world and through time, the passage of 12 months, four seasons, marks a kind of release for the living from the pain of having to remember the dead within the proximity of a calendar year. The way she laughed last summer at the lake, the way he stood with the children next to the Christmas tree.

After that terrible day in September, Americans used 9/11 or 9-1-1 as shorthand for tragedy and terror. And we began counting from zero as the gaping hole was slowly cleared of debris. We observed the passage of one month, two, six and now the coming anniversary of zero.

OFFICER: Back through here, okay? Just come on around.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: So many people made a pilgrimage to the gaping hole that months ago city officials erected a platform so we could all look… at what? At nothing. We stared at this hole that reminded us of zero. For if zero is a number it is also paradoxically nothing, a void. It is also chaos. Zero divided by 12 is zero. Zero divided by 365 equals zero. It was easy enough for the federal government to repair the hole in the side of the Pentagon. What, on the other hand, were we to do with this gaping hole that reminds us of zero?

The most touching construction of remembrance were beams of light. Architects and developers have suggested office buildings and apartment houses and schools for the site. (Bell ringing) What no one wants to say is that this zero is not utter vacancy but is a cemetery. The undiscovered dead lie here as certainly as they do in their coffins at Arlington or Normandy Beach. Within this zero are fragments of flesh embedded in stone or in concrete.

Standing here on the other side of America in a military cemetery in a presidio in San Francisco, I think that some part of ground zero should be preserved as a cemetery with tombstones or memorials with names etched in stone against time like these from another century. There are, after all, other graveyards in lower Manhattan. In the middle of all the buying and selling on Wall Street lie some of America’s oldest cemeteries.

Perhaps as with the graveyard shattered by Trinity Church, a place of prayer and meditation should be erected at ground zero — a place welcoming to people of all beliefs or unbelief and housing the sacred text of our human faith in the infinite. I cannot think of better protection from future mad terrorists than having the Koran alongside other holy scriptures forever housed at ground zero.

Despite the Europeans’ insistence that America was virgin land, I think the soil is haunted — dead Indians everywhere under our feet. On September 11, I think Americans will be released from zero with one, but we will also realize that we can never be released from zero, nor should we. The dead lie within zero. We shall continue to live our lives in lower Manhattan and all across America forever, counting from zero.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.