London Worries It Might Be Next

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Cosmopolitan capital, financial center, tourist attraction — the qualities London shares with New York always seemed like its proudest attributes.

But two weeks after airborne hijackers leveled the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, jittery Londoners are looking at their own landmarks differently, worried the sprawling city could be the next target for a terrorist attack.

"Who are the biggest allies of America?" asked London Metropolitan Police Chief John Stevens. "Which is the next biggest target? It's got to be here."

Londoners have been hardened by decades of Irish Republican Army bombings, but the Sept. 11 strikes in the United States inspired a new kind of fear.

"It's on everybody's mind," said Pauline McDermott, a hairdresser waiting for a bus Tuesday on Oxford Street, in the city's main shopping district. "This isn't the end, is it? There's worse to come ... Coming here today, I thought, 'This could be the area."'

Some around the country were scrambling to buy gas masks and protective coveralls, and vendors were reporting that stocks were selling out. A wave of tabloid newspaper stories fed the panic, prompting Prime Minister Tony Blair's office to urge the media not to frighten people with overblown coverage.

"Britain In Germ Terror Alert," a headline in the Daily Express tabloid shouted, next to a photograph of a man wearing plastic coveralls and a gas mask. Even the buttoned-down British Broadcasting Corp. was speculating about the dangers of a biological or chemical attack after American officials said the Sept. 11 terrorists may have been eyeing crop-dusting planes.

"These people will stop at nothing, and if they can do what they did to innocent people in America, they can do it here as well," said Winifred Grieve, 73, who was shopping for gas masks at Leith Army Stores, a military surplus shop in Edinburgh, Scotland. "I want to buy them for my children and my grandchildren because I think there's a good chance they may need them."

Scotland Yard put 1,500 additional officers on central London streets after the American attacks, although police say there have been no specific threats.

Britons were reminded of their vulnerability on Tuesday, when U.S. Ambassador William Farish hosted a service for about 30 British families who lost relatives in the Trade Center. At least 200 Britons are among the nearly 7,000 missing and dead in the attacks.

Even some who agree with Blair's stalwart support for the United States worry that his strong stance could make Britain the next target.

Lord Mayor Sir David Howard, the ceremonial head of London, warned that the city's financial district could be just as vulnerable as New York's twin towers.

"When the terrorists struck at those towers, they were striking at a building. But they were also bent upon the destruction of an icon of trade and international cooperation," he told financiers Tuesday. "Finance, not architecture, was their target and as a consequence we must all be vigilant."

As in America, fear has sometimes prompted violence in Britain against Muslims and others from the Middle East.

Attackers in west London left a 28-year-old taxi driver from Afghanistan paralyzed from the neck down, and police said Tuesday that three passengers in another cab beat a driver from the Indian subcontinent after taunting him about the attacks.

Despite the uncertainty, most people were trying to take the possibility of attacks in stride.

"There's nothing we can do standing here to stop it," said flower salesman Marc Strutton, who said his stand's proximity to the U.S. Embassy sometimes made him nervous. "If it happens, it happens. It's just not worth worrying."