Ground Zero: A Hole by Any Other Name is Still Just a Hole
Published on Monday, September 18, 2006 by the Times Herald-Record (Binghamton, New YorK
Ground Zero: A Hole by Any Other Name is Still Just a Hole
by Beth Quinn

When Ray Nagin made the mistake a couple of weeks ago of calling the hole in the ground in lower Manhattan a — gulp! dare I say it? — "hole in the ground," there was quite naturally a great hue and cry from the perennially offended.

After all, in this weird new America, it doesn't matter that the New Orleans mayor was right. It is a hole in the ground. And it's been a hole for five years because our leaders can't manage to get their act together and fill it with something meaningful.

But being right doesn't matter. What matters is nice words. If you use the right words — the politically correct, sanitized words that meet with the approval of the Department of Homeland Busybodies — then it's not a hole in the ground at all. Certainly it's not The Memorial Hole, as The Onion so irreverently suggests.

No, the correct name of the hole in the ground is The Future 9/11 Memorial Site. Never mind that, for five years, it's been a big ole hole in the ground.

The collective gasp over Nagin's poor judgment in calling a hole a hole must have taken the outspoken mayor by surprise, so much so that he figured he'd better apologize, even though he meant no disrespect for those who died there. In fact, it could be argued that those who have failed to erect a proper memorial in the hole are the ones showing disrespect.

Nagin was simply making the observation that the government has been doing a lot of foot-dragging in cleaning up messes, both in Manhattan and in New Orleans. But his offense eclipses any negligence on the part of the government. He used the wrong word. He called a train wreck a train wreck. And he did it at a time when this train wreck of an administration was using 9/11 to further its own political agenda.

"We will not forget," the president assured us last week. Or course, that doesn't mean "We will fill the hole," but Bush is accustomed to using meaningless (but nice!) words to manipulate American emotions — and he's accustomed to getting away with it.

The outrage over Nagin's calling a hole a hole is part of a larger American tendency to imagine that word choice changes reality — a national pastime that enables us to avoid the truth.

And it's not just politicians who use words to influence people. Both do-gooders and do-badders of all ilk would change the way we speak in order to change the way we think.

I recall being chastised once by an animal activist for calling my dog a "mutt." My dog was a mutt — he was the product of several generations of rather careless, if amorous, backyard relationships.

"You shouldn't call him a mutt," I was admonished. "You should refer to him as random-bred."

And "swamps" became "wetlands" when environmentalists wanted them saved. Hard to convince people to save the swamps, but give them a wetland to save, and suddenly you've got petitions circulating.

The theory, of course, is that random-bred dogs and wetlands have a certain elevated status that mutts and swamps don't enjoy. Just as a "future memorial" has greater status than a hole.

But I'll tell you what. You can't alter reality by using pretty words. It just doesn't fly, not in the long run. And people shouldn't be condemned for calling a mutt a mutt.

That mess in lower Manhattan? That's a hole in the ground. And you know what? Sometimes a hole really is just a hole.

And sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's more than that. Sometimes, a hole in the ground is a symbol of empty promises.

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There are 855 days 'til Jan. 20, 2009. Hang in there, America.

Beth's column appears on Monday. Talk to her at 845-346-3147 or at

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