COMMENTARY: Toronto’s calm response to tragedy is the biggest shock

Sean O'Keefe and his son Fionn, 16 months, bring flowers to a memorial on Yonge Street the day after a driver drove a rented van down sidewalks Monday afternoon, striking pedestrians in his path in Toronto, Tuesday, April 24, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Galit Rodan

It was years ago that I first opined, on some panel or another, that Canadians were so oblivious to most foreign policy matters, so smugly convinced that we were universally held to be cheerful polite peacekeepers, so very different from our American neighbours, that when a mass casualty attack finally came to our shores, we’d be stunned. Shocked wouldn’t quite describe it. We’d be speechless, confused, and unmoored. How could this happen here? Don’t they know how diverse we are, how kind? Did they mean to hit America and miss?

The Canadian public’s psychological unpreparedness for a major incident is a theory of mine I returned to again and again over the years. We’ve had incidents, of course, but kept waiting for the big one. It’s come … and I was wrong.

READ MORE: Identifying those killed in Toronto van attack could take days, coroner says

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As I write this, we’re still learning a lot about the horrific incident on Monday that left at least 10 people in my hometown dead, and a further 14 injured, some with injuries so horrific that police have declined to describe them publicly. This column won’t be recapping the latest news here; to be blunt, the story is advancing so fast anything I’d write here would be out of date by the time you read it.

Instead, I want to talk a little bit about the reaction. It was not what I predicted years ago.

Click to play video: 'Toronto van attack suspect charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder' Toronto van attack suspect charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder
Toronto van attack suspect charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder – Apr 24, 2018

WATCH ABOVE: Toronto van attack suspect charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder

Contrary to what some of what our political leaders would have you believe, Toronto is not shattered by Monday’s attack. Saddened, concerned, a bit shocked — of course. But to an extent that was shocking (at least to me), the city got back to normal very quickly. In fact, outside of the immediate scene of the horror, I’m not sure it was ever not normal.

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I was well away from the attack site when it occurred. I’d seen a news alert about what was still thought to be an accident when I ducked into the city’s underground system for a short ride downtown. Riding a subway, I noticed an unusually long PA announcement on the intercom, rattling off a series of transit route closures and diversions, all in the northern part of the city. It was long enough to be notable — clearly, a large area was being impacted by what the PA announcer described as “a police investigation.” By the time I got off the subway and had smartphone signal again, it was clear that we were dealing with an attack of some kind, and a serious one.

READ MORE: ‘Proud’ father praises police officer son who arrested Toronto van attack suspect

But if not for my smartphone alerts, I wouldn’t have known. Downtown was busy and entirely normal. It was a pleasant spring day and people were enjoying it. Even though I was in an area absolutely loaded with sensitive sites, there was no obviously increased security presence. The only thing I noticed at all during my hours downtown that day and evening was an unusually high number of grim looking police officers standing, very visibly, outside of Toronto Police headquarters.

That was it. No barricades, no troops, no checkpoints, and not even people looking unusually shocked, sharing the latest bulletins with passersby. It was utterly normal. People went about their business. The Leafs played the Bruins downtown, and won, under heightened security, but with no real disruption. A large stretch of Yonge Street was closed off for more than 24 hours, as police scoured the area for evidence, but with the exception of local disruptions due to road closures, the city was operating normally by Tuesday morning.

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WATCH BELOW: Citizens support each other after van attack

Click to play video: '#TorontoStrong: Citizens support each other after van attack' #TorontoStrong: Citizens support each other after van attack
#TorontoStrong: Citizens support each other after van attack – Apr 24, 2018


This is not to deny or downplay the agony of those directly impacted by this horrific attack. Ten people took a walk on a gorgeous spring day and didn’t survive the experience. That’s gutting. Many more are injured and face long recoveries. First responders and bystanders, who witnessed the attack and its aftermath, including many who desperately tried to help the wounded, the dead and the dying, will carry these horrific memories forever. Monday was a dark, dark day. Toronto won’t forget it.

But Toronto will be OK. In fact, it wasn’t not OK, even for a moment. Even as the event was unfolding, a heroic police officer was calmly arresting the alleged attacker, medical crews and civilians were tending to the wounded, Toronto’s superb Sunnybrook hospital was handling an influx of victims, and police and paramedic reinforcements poured into Toronto from nearby York Region. The transit system smoothly adjusted to bypass the scene of the attack and continued getting most people where they needed to go safely.

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If any of the above sounds boastful, that’s not the intent. I’m certainly proud of how those directly involved reacted, and the city’s overall calm was reassuring. But I’m baffled — unnerved, really — by how well the city coped. It’s a nice thing to have been wrong about, sure, but how to explain this?

READ MORE: How Toronto police officers are trained to ‘de-escalate’ active situations

It’s possible I was wrong all along, full stop. Perhaps Canadians are much more realistic about the world and its dangers than I believed. But another possibility presents itself: maybe I was right all those years ago. Maybe the city’s shocking calm reflects not an original misjudgment, per se, on my part, but more of a failure to adjust my theory as time went on.

Consider what we’ve seen in recent years: terror has gone global. Cities across Europe, the Middle East, Australia and the United States have been hit; we’ve had smaller incidents here at home, in Quebec, in Ottawa, and Edmonton. Many of these incidents, of course, are explicitly linked to Islamist terror; the Toronto attack seems to have no such connection. Even so, the staggering number of attacks, in so many cities across a world knit closely together by light-speed social media updates, have brought the horror home to us all. Even when it’s happening in Paris or Brussels or Orlando or London, we experience it in real time. It feels like home.

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Perhaps Toronto, and presumably most other cities, has been slowly and painfully inoculated to terror by repeated, tragic exposure. Perhaps Toronto’s calm reaction is simply the byproduct of years spent knowing this day would come for us here eventually, simply because it would be our turn. And as bad as it was, many of us, myself included, feared it would be worse.

If so, there’s something tragic about that, and what it says about us all. How far our expectations for a peaceful life have fallen. But as this great city calmly and efficiently gets back to work … well, you can’t really argue with success, can you? For better or worse, Torontonians were mentally prepared for this. But at what cost?

Matt Gurney is host of The Exchange with Matt Gurney on Global News Radio 640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News.

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