Shortly after the attack on Toronto’s Yonge Street, a television camera caught the scene at the corner of Yonge and Finch. A group of bystanders stood behind a cordon of yellow police tape. No one was saying much. They were just standing and looking, their faces a study in stunned incomprehension.
How could this happen? How could it happen in Toronto − safe, secure, successful, multicultural, blessed Toronto?
“I can’t believe this is happening in Toronto. It’s insane. It’s insane. It’s such a safe city. I can’t believe it. I can’t,” one shaken young man in a baseball cap told a TV reporter.
And yet, it has always been clear that something like this could happen. Many cities have suffered such vehicle attacks, if that, in fact, is what this is: London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Stockholm, Nice. Hundreds have been killed or injured. In 2014 in Quebec, a man used a car to hit two Canadian Armed Forces members. There was never any reason to think Toronto was exempt.
Although it is important to remember that we don’t know yet whether Monday’s attack was political, the result of mental illness or something else − authorities were justifiably cautious about classifying it − Toronto has been the target of thwarted terror attacks in the past.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale confirmed just last month that Union Station, the city’s busiest commuter hub, was a target in 2016. Islamic State sympathizer Aaron Driver was killed in a confrontation with police in Strathroy, Ont., before that attack could unfold.
For all that, Monday’s event came as a profound shock. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon. People were streaming along Yonge Street, enjoying some of the first decent spring weather in weeks. According to witnesses, a van charged down the sidewalk, knocking down pedestrians left and right. Bystanders yelled “stop,” some accounts said. The vehicle kept going.
Afterward, a large white van stood at rest, its hood crumpled. Video showed the police arresting a tall man after a tense standoff. In the chaotic aftermath, first responders and ordinary people performed first aid on the victims. Bodies covered in orange tarps lay on the pavement. Blood stained the street.
It was all just too awful to absorb. To have a mass attack unfold in broad daylight on the busy streets of the city is unthinkable. Even if we have always known in theory that it could happen, the fact of it makes the mind stagger and the heart break. Whatever the motive, the effect was an afternoon of chaos and terror.
“These are not the kinds of things that we expect to happen in this city,” Mayor John Tory said. “We hope they don’t happen anywhere in the world. But we especially don’t expect them to happen in Toronto.”
He said he hoped the people of Toronto would come together in the aftermath of the tragedy, reminding themselves “that we are admired around the world for being inclusive and for being accepting and understanding and considerate …”
That was the right lesson to take from Monday’s events: not that Toronto is vulnerable, but that Toronto is strong. The city motto is Diversity Our Strength. Every day, this city puts on a masterclass in co-existence. People from every corner of the world are streaming to live here because of it. Acts such as this won’t divide us. They will only remind us of what we have and how precious it is.
Cities have a remarkable capacity to heal themselves. The Ramblas, that beautiful promenade in Barcelona, is bustling again. So is the area around London Bridge attacked last year. City dwellers don’t cringe in the face of terror; they dust themselves off and carry on. Going ahead with Monday night’s hockey game in Toronto, with heightened security, was the right decision.
Police, ambulance drivers and hospitals have trained for years for such a scenario. They seem to have handled themselves with calm efficiency throughout this episode. They even managed to take down the apparent van driver without resorting to gunfire, even though he was brandishing something in his hand. That seemed a conclusion worthy of the Toronto spirit.