Bonfire in Brooklyn

August 22, 1991

A few years ago author Tom Wolfe struck a chord with his satirical novel "Bonfire of the Vanities," about the social forces set in motion by a fatal traffic accident involving a white motorist and a black teen-ager. Now life may be imitating art as New Yorkers struggle to come to grips with the aftermath of two days of rioting touched off by a real-life incident eerily reminiscent of the one described in Wolfe's fictional yarn.

The trouble began Monday when a car in the motorcade of a Hasidic grand rabbi struck and killed a black 7-year-old and seriously injured another in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. The area has a history of tension between blacks and members of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect whose members settled there during the 1940s and '50s. A few hours after the child was killed, a 29-year-old Jewish student visiting from Australia was stabbed to death in a racial melee near the accident scene.

The deaths set off two nights of clashes in which groups of Hasidim and blacks threw bottles and rocks at each other and battled police trying to maintain order. The violence apparently was fueled by resentment over alleged preferential treatment toward the Hasidic community by city authorities and a rumor that a private Jewish ambulance that arrived on the scene Monday tended to the car's driver first, rather than to the injured children.

What strikes one most about the incident is the depth of mistrust and hostility that has been allowed to fester for years and that rendered rational discussion impossible -- indeed, published news reports suggest that some on both sides seemed actually to prefer the sensational rumors generated by the incident than the prosaic facts. In just such a way did the accidental death of the teen-ager in Wolfe's novel lead to the polarization of an entire city. The tragic death of two innocent people will only be compounded in this case if life continues to imitate art.

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