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Britain on edge as it unites against a hidden enemy

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 27, 2001

LONDON -- It is among the many small but telling signs of how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States have affected places thousands of miles away. These days, you can ride the London Eye without waiting.

Since it began turning last year as part of Britain's Millennium celebrations, the world's tallest Ferris wheel has become one of London's most popular tourist attractions. Visitors used to have to book far in advance or stand in line for hours, with no assurances they'd even get on.

Now, though, you can walk up, buy a ticket and take the very next "flight." Which is exactly what I did Tuesday, on a stopover here on the way to Pakistan.

As the glass-enclosed capsules rise slowly above the Thames, you are struck by how flat London really is. There is not a structure in this entire metropolitan area of 7.6-million that is half as high as the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and only a handful that approach even the 30-story rise of the London Eye.

Yet from this moving perch, almost directly below the Heathrow flight path, you also get a superb view of the many potential targets that make up in symbolism whatever they lack in height. Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey -- an attack on any or all would be a devastating blow at Britain's heart and soul.

Yes, Britain is sweating a bit. Since that catastrophic Tuesday, the U.S. attacks and the war on terrorism have dominated the news here, pushing such normally big stories as London Fashion Week and Prince William's first day of college far off the front pages.

About the only businesses not reporting a dramatic drop in business are those that sell gas masks, which Britons are snapping up at $75 apiece. Hotels are suffering, trendy restaurants have empty tables and British Airways, the sponsor of the London Eye, has lost so many trans-Atlantic bookings it has cut operations by 10 percent. (A feisty little rival, Ryanair, is offering $15 one-way fares, urging customers to "Fight Back!" against terrorism.)

Last weekend, there were 1,500 more London police officers on the streets, guarding, among other things, the city's mosques. London has a sizable population of Muslims, most of whom were appalled by the U.S. attacks. But Britain's liberal asylum and immigration laws have made it an attractive base for some alleged Islamic radicals, including an Egyptian wanted in his native country for a bombing that killed a 12-year-old girl and injured many others.

Concern about the influx of foreigners has sparked serious talk in recent days that every British citizen be required to carry a "national identity" card. Critics have blasted the idea as a pointless erosion of civil liberties, noting that even if every Briton had been holding such a card Sept. 11, it would have done nothing to stop the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

Still, it is clear that Britain, like other Western democracies, will be under heavy pressure to balance its vaunted freedoms against national security interests.

Wrote columnist George Walden in the Evening Standard: "The political classes will have to find ways to explain to the average man and woman, whose efforts to be liberal-minded are today badly strained, how multiculturalism can be squared with the toleration of people who wish to destroy by violence everything their country and its friends stand for, or are striving to achieve, racial harmony included."

Although millions of Muslims live here, many British worry that their country's strong support of the United States will make them a target of terrorist activity. At times, Prime Minister Tony Blair has seemed even more resolute than President Bush in building an international coalition against terrorism, phoning other world leaders in the immediate aftermath of the attacks and flying 9,000 miles in two days to Berlin, Paris, Brussels, New York and Washington, D.C., to further drum up support.

"Blair grasped the enormity even faster than Bush, who instantly called the terrorists "folks,' betraying a less sensitive moral imagination," wrote columnist Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail.

However, Blair has also come under fire for whole-heartedly endorsing a "war on terrorism" without knowing exactly what the U.S. actions, or the consequences, will be. Instead of handing America a "blank check," a British opposition leader warned, Blair should be ready to give "a cautionary tap on the shoulder" if U.S. retaliation appears misguided.

The events of the past two weeks have inevitably evoked memories here of another time and another war. After I left the London Eye, I walked past the Cabinet War Rooms, the underground warren where Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his top aides lived and worked while the Germans blitzed London during World War II. From his subterranean chambers, a pajama-clad Churchill plotted strategy and conferred with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt over a secure phone in a little room disguised as a "water closet" -- the British term for toilet.

Seeing the War Rooms reminded me of one of my favorite quotes. "When it's 3 o'clock in New York," singer Bette Midler once said, "it's 1938 in London."

Indeed, as boxy black cabs and double-decker buses roll past parks and buildings unchanged for decades, it is easy to imagine you are back in 1938. That was the year Churchill's predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, notoriously promised "peace in our time" after striking a deal -- or so he thought -- that Hitler would take his territorial ambitions no farther than Czechoslovakia.

Just 12 months later, the Nazis invaded Poland, and Britain declared war. Over the next six years, at least 60,000 Londoners would die from German bombs, and countless other Britons would lose their lives as they defended their island nation by land, by sea, by air.

The Battle of Britain might very well have been the country's "finest hour," as Churchill so eloquently intoned. The British empire was already fading into history -- Britain had long since learned that while craggy Afghanistan was a strategic crossroads between Asia and Europe it was the last place in the world anybody would want to fight a war.

In 1947, Britain withdrew from the Indian subcontinent, leaving behind two new nations -- India and Pakistan -- whose mutual distrust is still causing trouble. And four years ago, Britain turned Hong Kong, its last colonial gem, back to the Chinese.

Today, Britain is a prosperous country of 59.7-million, and London is still one of the world's great capitals and financial centers. But Britain's global influence derives at least in part from its "special relationship" with another former colony, the United States.

Now, Britons hope that relationship doesn't drag them into a war far different from the one they fought 60 years ago, against a clear enemy with a clear goal.

"There is no denying that with our American allies we are about to embark on a dangerous and uncertain course whose consequence could be truly disastrous," wrote Glover in the Daily Mail. "And let there be no doubt -- it will be the U.S., not Britain, that will largely determine the shape of the conflict in which we are involved."

- Susan Martin can be reached at

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