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Toronto is a safe place. It has a very low murder rate for a major city. This kind of thing almost never happens here.

All those things are true. Yet they ring hollow after the horror – for once, the word does not seem overblown – of what happened at the Eaton Centre on Saturday evening.

It was ordinary weekend scene at the food court of the city's most famous mall. Families with small children lining up for burgers or Chinese food. Couples chatting at tables. Women with strollers.

And then, out of the blue, "pop, pop, pop." An angry man with a gun. Screams. Tears. Blood on the floor. A man killed People running in terror or cowering under tables. Trampled bodies. A pregnant woman injured and a 13-year-old boy and another man gravely hurt.

The mind struggles to grasp such an event. How could this have happened in the heart of our peaceful, successful, caring city? What kind of person lets loose a fusillade in a crowd of people?

Police Chief Bill Blair said that "the level of violence and wanton disregard for the lives and safety of fellow citizens is shocking to us and should be shocking to the people of Toronto." Mayor Rob Ford said simply that "it rips my heart out."

Who doesn't feel that way this morning? An event such as this brings us together in mutual sorrow. There is some comfort, at least, in the sense of solidarity that comes out of such a trauma.

But as the impact sinks in, it also makes us question our sense of the city as an essentially secure and orderly place. It was lost on no one that this shooting took place only steps from the site of another infamous crime: the killing of Jane Creba on Boxing Day 2005. "Today harkens back to that terrible moment," Chief Blair said. An innocent, wide-eyed 15-year-old, Jane was struck by a random bullet unleashed in a shootout between rival gangs in a busy place full of ordinary people.

If it turns out that this was something similar – a dispute between gang-members settled in public – then we will be forced to think again about the roots of gang and youth violence in Toronto. Though, yes, Toronto is in general an exceptionally safe city, it has been clear for some years that a tiny minority of the population mixed up with the drug trade and other crime is perpetrating much of the violence that breaks into the headlines.

It is a persistent sore that does not seem to heal, despite intense attention from police and the best efforts of social agencies.

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