A strange thing happened in Toronto on Monday evening: Life went on.
Not readily, or unchanged. After the horrific van attack on Yonge St. that killed 10 people and injured so many more, no one could fail to feel shaken, or altered, by the knowledge of what had happened.
But then, even as the city bowed its head in shock and sorrow, life went on.
Girls played softball with their mothers on the newly green park grass. Old men swept the pavement outside their houses. Legions of cyclists filled the streets again on the first weekday of spring proper. The Leafs beat the Bruins.
You would never guess, to look around, that a horrific crime had only just been committed a short subway ride away.
And a particularly unnerving crime – the deliberate and random mowing down of pedestrians on a crowded street, with a weapon as mundane as a van. A type of crime to which cities, with their massed pedestrians, are uniquely prone. As we learn again and again, from Nice to Berlin to Barcelona to Edmonton.
But if crowds make cities vulnerable to this type of horror, crowds also make them resilient in the face of it.
On the most basic level, the sheer amount of business to be transacted, the sum total of millions of plans, means that big cities will not stop – cannot be stopped – when tragedy strikes. There are still groceries to buy, meetings to take. In a time of immense grief, there are worse things than being busy. The churning momentum of a place like Toronto is vast and, sometimes, healing.
And how comforting it is to be surrounded by friends, neighbours, even perfect strangers, when terror casts its long shadow.
To see someone dismount his bike and help a man in a motorized wheelchair pick up the sunglasses he dropped.
To see a woman selling handmade mugs painted with little strawberries outside a homeless shelter. To smile back at a jogger who can’t believe the good weather.
The normality of these streetscapes can seem eerie or even callous, a product of hard-hearted urbanites minding their own business to a fault. It isn’t that. Watch a video of Leafs fans singing O Canada at the Air Canada Centre on Monday night and try to convince yourself their hearts are hard.
No, when cities pick themselves up and dust themselves off in the wake of a tragedy like this, it’s not because people are indifferent, it’s because they’re strong. They have the strength of our natural will to life, the kind that lets us put one foot in front of the other, and more, amid even the most stupefying pain. And cities, with their skyscrapers, nightclubs, universities and bustling shops, are nothing if not testaments to that will.
Toronto has acquitted itself admirably in the past two days, but in these circumstances all cities do. Just remember how quickly London Bridge was thronged again after last year’s van attack there. Or how short a time it took Parisians to reclaim their places on cafe patios following the Bataclan massacre in 2015.
There will always be a place for the flowers, candles and scrawled condolences that have already begun appearing on Yonge St. They are a way to remember the dead and wish the injured well at a time when those things are needed.
But the most fitting and lasting way to honor Monday’s victims is to go on doing what people have always come to cities for: getting the most out of life.
Authorities need to respect this. There will rightly be much discussion in the coming weeks and months about what kinds of precautionary measures Canadian cities can take in this age of automotive terrorism. But we should be careful not to overreact. These horrible attacks have become too frequent, but they are still rare. And the unruffled equilibrium of city life is worth straining to preserve.
Advocates of tougher security often mention bollards as some kind of magic bullet. But you can’t put bollards and barriers everywhere, and the grim sight of them along pleasant commercial streets may not be worth whatever iota of safety they provide.
Better to take hope in watching the instinctive bravery and wisdom of urban crowds when faced with something unspeakable. Throw what you like at them: They go on seizing the day.