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A View From Ground Zero

by David Blake Willis

The Lamps Are Going Out
Pandora's Box has been opened in Northeast Asia, and possibly the world, as the bellicose rhetoric and saber-rattling posturing of the United States, North Korea, and others has awakened fears in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan about possible scenarios of either U.S. hyper-engagement or hyper-withdrawal and the need for "self-defense".

These nations, it should be widely known, sit on top of large stockpiles of plutonium. The Japanese Self-Defense forces Director announced loudly in the international press last week that Japan reserves the right to pre-emptive strikes against North Korea. This is Japan talking, not the United States, about pre-emptive strikes. South Korea meanwhile, with the inauguration of their new President Roh Moo-hyun appears cool to the idea of any military action and distancing itself from the U.S. Taiwan cannot be far behind in its nervousness about the turn of events.

The evident beginning of the collapse of a formerly stable security system in Northeast Asia in such a short time is nothing short of stunning. The possible continuing sequence of events leaves little to the imagination:

Ground Zero all over again. Maybe many Ground Zeroes.

I write from Western Japan, from Kobe, the city devastated by an earthquake in 1995, and near Kyoto, the city saved from atomic bombing during WWII. It is not a comfortable place to be sitting in these cold winter months of 2003. Like the North Koreans, who suffer from lack of even basic heat or electricity, we are sitting here uncomfortably watching the unfolding horrors in the Middle East, filled with feelings of dread that we are next. This part of the world has seen many catastrophes in the past hundred years, but none of them will compare with the fragmentation of nations in Northeast Asia and the spread of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems that seems to have started here.

The Japanese Defense Agency today withheld even basic information from the civilian government about the latest missile launching for many hours, the national news reporting here that it was some time before the Prime Minister and other key figures were notified, many by the media apparently. Explanations from the Self-Defense Agency looked dissembling and seemed to be intentionally vague. What is disturbing is the pattern of closely held communication and secrecy. Curiously, too, few Japanese were aware of the Defense Agency Director's threat of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea.

Although the story had big international airplay, it was not widely reported in Japan. Draw your own conclusions.

The steady drum-beat of the horrifying stories of Japanese people kidnapped by North Koreans over the years since the release of a group of them recently has at the same time raised the anger level to just the right pitch to justify military action. Discussion of the revision of the constitution and elimination of Article 9 (the so-called Peace Article, which mandates Japan forever from using war as an instrument of diplomacy) so that Japan can protect itself from outrages such as the abductions and other potential missile launchings from North Korea has spread, stoking the passions of right-wing nationalists.

In these troubled times, it might be appropriate to consider more carefully what the expression Ground Zero means, especially as events are escalating towards flashpoint. Originally a metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ground Zero was co-opted by the events of 9/11 as the symbol of modern tragedy and righteous anger.

Immediately after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Pearl Harbor was the phrase on many people's lips, a surprise attack that changed history. Pearl Harbor had devastated America's image of comfortable isolation from the tempo of the rest of the world. Now it was happening again. Pearl Harbor, for Americans at least, stood apart from what had been happening:

"We were innocent and they were evil," according to Americans.

Japanese-Americans and others were quick to jump on the use of Pearl Harbor in 2001 in the week after 9/11 as bearing another legacy, one of racism, abuse, and concentration camps. Then a strange period of namelessness emerged as we all tried to grope with what had happened in New York. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) began happening in disturbing and unpredictable ways. The image of a surprise attack has lingered, but the key phrase everyone gradually settled on was Ground Zero.

There is a serious danger, however, in simply using the term Ground Zero without a deep understanding of its historical precedents. The power of Ground Zero comes to this: it is the most powerful of all symbols of man's inhumanity to man. We should continually remind ourselves that Ground Zero in its original context was the earth-shaking oblivion visited upon the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and, ultimately, humanity.

"You cannot understand the 20th century without Hiroshima," said Robert Jay Lifton, one of the most profound authors of our time. The top news story of the 20th century, Hiroshima as Ground Zero should be remembered and considered as we appear to be headed for another reckless adventure of death and destruction. The stark images from the World Trade Center ruins evoke the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. Ground Zero evokes our mortality as a species.

Hiroshima? "We were innocent and they were evil." "They deserved what they got." "If we hadn't done it a million lives would have been lost." "Pre-emptive strike." These rationales pale by comparison with the catastrophic wreckage wrought on our collective psyches as humans by Hiroshima. What will happen next?

The shocking speed with which the world has been altered should give us pause as we consider what to do next. Like Philip Morrison, one of the early scientists with the Manhattan Project (the name resonates peculiarly today), many of those who bore direct witness to Hiroshima and Ground Zero in the scientific survey of that city in September 1945 saw what happened as "a crime and a sin." Not because of the hotly-contested decision whether to use the bomb or not, but because it was "the first event of a future that's intolerable." Ground Zero was/is a token of what lies in the future.

At Ground Zero in New York City there are thousands of gifts of remembrance and tribute. Among them are the gifts of hundreds of children: folded paper birds of peace: Cranes, doves, and yes, eagles. We need to keep uppermost in our minds what Jimmy Carter said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, that we cannot change the world for the better by killing each other's children.

David Blake Willis is a Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Cultures (Anthropology and Education), in the Department of Humanities, Soai University, Osaka, Japan. He has lived in Japan 24 years and has published research on globalization, transnational societies, and creolization

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Albion Monitor March 7, 2003 (

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