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Schily Season

From the March 29, 2004 issue: John Ashcroft's favorite German.

Mar 29, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 28 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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When I asked Ashcroft how he and Schily could be friends despite their disparate backgrounds, he joked, "You didn't know about my Baader-Meinhof years?" He then explained that "The common ground is the fight against terror. It is what unites us. . . . [Schily] cares deeply about the right of people to be free from this scourge of terror. . . . Otto takes the threat of terrorism seriously, and he addresses the threat with a very complete willingness to devote whatever it takes to win this battle."

In doing whatever it takes, Schily has become a major proponent of biometric identifiers: microchips in passports and visas, fingerprinting, facial recognition technology at airports, and retinal scans--the kinds of things that probably would have appalled the old Schily. And Ashcroft is fully on board: "When it comes to who you're letting in and out of your country, and who you're letting on and off your airplanes, you need to have reliable information and information of integrity, and [biometric identifiers] are a way of doing it. I think [Schily] has been a leader in saying when we do these things, we ought to do them in a rational way."

None of this comes as a complete surprise to Reinecke, who considers the minister to be an authoritarian and pragmatic politician--one who had no problem switching from the Greens to the Social Democrats in the 1980s. "For [German foreign minister] Joschka Fischer, the Greens are his family. The Greens are not the family of Otto Schily," who identified with them "not as a left-wing party but as an ecological party."

Perhaps this love for ecology is what led Schily to eagerly accept an invitation to go hiking in the Shenandoah with Ashcroft. In the attorney general's words, Schily jumped at the opportunity "like a chicken on a June bug. . . . I was told that Germans like to have walking sticks, so we had a dozen walking sticks ready for him, and we just had a great time together."

"I loved it," recalled Schily. "It was quite beautiful." Ashcroft remembered, "We had some apple cider, some banana nut bread and apple bread, and sat there and let the sun shine on us as we listened to the river gurgling in the background."

Schily wants to go canoeing on his next trip here this summer. "We Germans are very good at canoeing. I don't know about you Americans," he said. When I relay this to Ashcroft, he replies, "If he wants to ride in the back and make sure the steering is done properly, that's fine with me. . . . I seldom get in a canoe, but when I get out of one it's sometimes at junctures where I hadn't intended to."

On Schily's recent visit to Washington, I asked him whether he has changed--for how else can his friendship with the attorney general be explained? "We're good friends," he says. "But it doesn't mean we share all the same positions. But we can discuss this." Schily is reminded of an anecdote from Bertolt Brecht's Stories of Mr. Keuner, entitled "Das Wiedersehen." In the story, Schily explains, "a man who had not seen Mr. K for a long time greeted him with the words: 'You haven't changed a bit.' 'Oh!' said Mr. K and turned pale."

The point being Mr. Keuner had in fact changed, and was offended his friend did not take notice. Was Schily trying to say he too has changed and that it is a good thing? Before he could clarify, his cell phone rang, ending our meeting. The call was from John Ashcroft.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.