Bruce Hoffman

The Inalienable Message of September 11th

It’s not often these days that I am cast back to my childhood while sitting at the breakfast table reading the newspaper.

But it was difficult this particular morning to avoid being drawn back to the past as I read about Pastor Terry Jones’s plan to burn copies of the Koran this coming Saturday as part of his grotesque commemoration of the September 11th 2001 attacks and then the article on the opinion page of today’s New York Times, “Building on Faith” by Feisal Abdul Rauf, the chairman of the Cordoba Initiative and the imam of the Farah mosque in Lower Manhattan.

Pondering the two diametrically opposed messages conveyed by Pastor Jones’s odious publicity stunt and Imam Rauf’s considered and measured response to the controversy surrounding the building of a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan, I was reminded of sitting in the waiting room of my dentist’s office with my younger brother, circa 1964.

It was less the gnawing fear and imminent pain of the dentist’s drill that came so readily to mind than the children’s magazine that my brother and I amused ourselves reading while awaiting our respective fates. The magazine was called Highlights for Children and was the type of low-cost, pen- and ink-illustrated periodical that could only have existed in the “Leave It To Beaver” era of the 1960s that I grew up in.

Though Highlights for Children lacked the gloss and verve of the visually arresting, interactive Internet websites that appeal to children today, much less the spell-binding excitement of the variety of incomprehensible video games that are a fixture of contemporary childhood, it nonetheless effectively conveyed a simple, but important message.

Highlights commendably helped children grow up to become better people. It taught us to be literate and thoughtful, artistic and expressive, and most of all, to behave properly—not only by having good manners but most critically in being able to judge for ourselves right from wrong.

In its deftly subtle and mildly didactic way, Highlights provided us with a moral compass in the hope that we would always do the right thing—or, if on the odd occasion we didn’t, that we would still be patently cognizant of our transgression.

One of the more effective ways that Highlights inculcated this ethos in its young readers was via the monthly feature titled “Goofus and Gallant.” Written by Highlights’ founder and editor, Gary Cleveland Myers, and illustrated in black-and-white ink by Anni Matsick, the cartoon contained two side-by-side panels that depicted how each boy would react to the same situation.

Goofus was coarse, thoughtless, and impolite and hence invariably made choices that were not only wrong in any civilized moral universe, but that were also often hurtful to others. Gallant, on the other hand, was the paradigm of empathy, thoughtfulness, and consideration of others. He was thus a shining exemplar of the polite, well-mannered child—buoyed by the self-confidence and satisfaction of both being—and doing—good.

My brother and I used to laugh at these contrived situations and further irritate our mother by pledging to emulate Goofus. But the false bravado was a way of overcoming our fears of the dentist’s drill by pretending that we were tougher and more hardened than a nine year-old and a seven year-old could ever be.

I never imaged in adulthood, nearly fifty years later that I would again encounter Goofus and Gallant—nor experience the same gnawing fear and imminent pain that I once felt sitting in the dentist’s reception area long ago. But this morning I did.

Fear because there are still people in the world—who now sadly will soon include my fellow citizens of this great country—who would deign to burn books—not least the sacred texts of another religious faith. And pain because of the unbridled intolerance and unmitigated ignorance such a depraved act evidences.

Throughout the past nine years we have continually shown how we can be tough on terrorists and others who seek to harm us, yet remain faithful to the core, fundamental values of truth and justice, and of religious freedom and tolerance of other faiths that have always set America apart from other countries.

As we approach another solemn anniversary of the worst tragedy to befall the United States in our collective memory, we should embrace ever more tightly these inalienable lessons of September 11th and shun with unrestrained opprobrium those that demean and diminish us as both a people and a nation.