On Tuesday morning, a young woman at the makeshift wall memorial for the victims of Monday’s van attack on Yonge Street was being interviewed on TV. She apologized to the reporter for not being very articulate. She said, “Sorry.”
We are great apologizers, of course, famous for it. It was so very touching that this young woman felt the need to apologize for not having the words and phrases she thought the TV reporter wanted.
Nobody needs to apologize, certainly not those who covered the carnage and relayed the news on TV over the hours of Monday and Tuesday morning. Nobody prepares for this. Nobody is ever ready for it. The shock is evident, the horrific scene of the street, empty of people afterward, is resonant enough. The usual language of reporting is made destitute by the images.
The first reports on Monday were scattered, unclear. An accident on Yonge Street. Then reports on one person killed, then two killed. It was some hours before the full breadth of the bloodshed was clear. The American all-news networks were, naturally, focused on a possible incident of terrorism.
Most of us in Canada have little direct experience of terrorist acts. Those are terrible events we experience through the prism of CNN or its equivalents. Soldiers and police on the streets in some distant city, the number of dead announced, the statements from politicians calling for vigilance and vowing that ordinary life will go on.
This was so different. Knowable, not distant. In Toronto, we knew the street and could sense the particular monstrosity of this mass murder, on this day, in this place. A pleasant spring Monday at lunchtime, all of us relieved and made happy by the sudden change in the weather. Those who died were experiencing that, the pleasure of sunshine and warmth, a wicked winter over at last.
The footage of the police officer disarming and arresting the van driver was crucial to our experience of the horror. No shots fired, a man merely arrested. In this city, we have become wary of the cops and the apparent ubiquity of the shoot-first attitude. This footage, from someone’s cellphone, was aired over and over across the channels because it mattered, it reverberated deeply: In the midst of this horror, this assault on the fabric of life here, a coolly executed act of non-violence said we are Toronto the Good and, in the moment and in the coming days, the goodness would be indomitable.
The eyewitnesses’ accounts dominated the TV coverage, and rightly so. The stunned young man saying: “He was just hitting people one by one, he hit every single person on the sidewalk, holy God I’ve never seen anything like this in my life, you see it in a war zone. He is going 60 to 70 K on the sidewalk, this person was intentional, doing this he was killing everybody ... this is terrorism stuff here.” But the terrorism theme was muted, mostly. The accusers, the addled and the angry were online or on the radio, not on TV.
In the eerie twilight the statements from the mayor, the Premier, the Police Chief, the federal government minister gathered on Yonge Street for the TV cameras. None of them eloquent, none of them saying exactly the right words. The Police Chief even causing confusion in spelling the name of the suspect. Yet in the substance of the coverage, it mattered little. What mattered was the multitude of voices in the interviews with locals and eyewitnesses. So many struggling a little with English, so many of them saying what country they came from and in this chorus of different voices and accents a harmony became evident – this is us, this is who we are: multihued, of multiple origins and all those speech patterns and pronunciations saying the same thing. This is Toronto.
There is an understandable impulse among TV news people to aim for instant context and explanation. On CBC’s The National, there was an exploration of a possible link between the van driver and online groups who glorify Elliot Rodger, a man who killed six people and then himself in California in 2014, and complained about his lack of sexual experience with women. (This newspaper explored the same possible link later.) While the haste of the exploring the link seemed initially one of television’s characteristic weaknesses – a stretch - it proved to be potentially crucial by Tuesday afternoon as the story moved rapidly.
What matters more is the footage of the street, the scene of carnage, the voices of citizens and the images of the victims. It was heartbreaking when the first victim was named as Anne Marie D’Amico. Looking at the handful of photos of her onscreen, grinning on a swing, smiling at a Toronto FC game, an emblematic life in this city emerged instantly.
By Tuesday afternoon, most TV coverage was anchored around that makeshift memorial on Yonge Street. It seemed packed with cameras and reporters, all aware of the truth in that young woman saying “sorry,” lacking the right words. Analysis and even most reporting are made redundant by the power of the image, when horror strikes.