"Terrorism is a propagandistic stereotype and nothing else. . . . 'Terrorists' are what Goebbels called the Russian partisans and the French resistance. . . . 'Terrorists' are what one calls the Iranians who fight against an authoritarian regime in Iran, the Vietnamese who fought against the French and later against American colonial rule. 'Terrorist' is what any American is called who fought against his own government because of this criminal war against Vietnam."
--Otto Schily, April 27, 1977
"I had talks with my friends John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge. . . . [We discussed our] continued successful operations fighting terrorism. We joined in our conviction that with only trust and cooperation with each other can we be successful against the bloody plans of global terrorists. . . . We have to find out who perpetrated these brutal actions, but more important is prevention."
--Otto Schily, February 24, 2004
WHEN OTTO SCHILY made that first statement in Stuttgart, he was a lawyer speaking on behalf of his clients, members of the Red Army Fraction, a left-wing terrorist group responsible for numerous robberies, kidnappings, bombings, and murders. Some 27 years later, Schily, now interior minister of Germany, made the second set of remarks at a press breakfast in Washington.
Following the bombings in Madrid, Schily requested that Germans observe three minutes of silence and had flags lowered to half-mast. He also convened a meeting of E.U. interior and justice ministers to discuss broader security measures throughout the union. "What has happened in Madrid is a shocking event for all the peoples of Europe, and it demands Europe-wide solidarity," Schily told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra last week. "The [German] chancellor has called a cabinet meeting on security today, because there is important evidence pointing to an Islamic trail. If that proves to be the case, then it would mean that fundamentalist terrorism in Europe has entered a new dimension."
How does a lawyer for terrorists become one of our closest allies in the war on terror? It is a question Schily himself tries to avoid. When his past is raised, the minister simply reminds us, "I was a lawyer," and every German, no matter what the crime, deserves fair legal representation.
"That is only a half-truth," says Stefan Reinecke, author of Otto Schily: From RAF Lawyer to Interior Minister. More than just an attraction to left-wing causes, Reinecke believes, drew Schily to involve himself with the Baader-Meinhof gang (which later morphed into the Red Army Fraction). "Schily was attached to Gudrun Ennslin," one of the defendants, who, along with her boyfriend Andreas Baader, was charged with the bombings of two Frankfurt department stores in 1968. "Ennslin shared a similar background with Schily. She played the violin, he played the cello. She came from a well-cultured background as did he. It is not an accident Schily was her lawyer and not the lawyer for Andreas Baader, [who was] a rough guy, not very well educated, with a bad attitude. Even back then, Schily hated people with bad attitudes." (Speaking of bad attitudes, one of Schily's other Baader-Meinhof clients was Horst Mahler, who later joined the neo-Nazi National Democratic party, which Schily is now trying to outlaw.)
"Schily is a guy with a broken history," says Elmar Thevessen, news director for ZDF German television and a terrorism expert. "Back in the '70s, he was claiming the RAF terrorists were 'political prisoners' of a 'fascist state' that answered to the 'criminal policies of an imperial superpower' with 'political crimes'" which were "morally justified." In contrast, for Schily, the flying of commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was not: "[He] was appalled by the way [the hijackers] found justification for suicide mass
murder in religious and historic concepts of Islam." And although Schily, appointed by Gerhard Schröder in 1998, was already enforcing
tougher asylum-seeking measures, Thevessen says "September 11 dramatically pushed him to support things he never would have in the past. That mostly has to do with a feeling of responsibility that came with his office." A number of the terrorists, including Mohamed Atta, planned much of the attack in Hamburg, on Schily's watch. As minister of the interior, Schily was asked by Schröder to make sure an event like 9/11 never happens in Germany. It is a task that brought him into a close working relationship with the U.S. Department of Justice, and friendship with Attorney General John Ashcroft.
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.