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08/12/2013 | Woman at the Window: Judging Edward Snowden from Next Door

Alexander Osang

Joyce Kinsey and Edward Snowden were neighbors. She observed him night and day. Now that he's gone, she is passing judgment on the former NSA contractor turned whistleblower. Like many Americans, Kinsey views the world from a narrow suburban perspective.


Joyce Kinsey lives in a clay-colored house in a forested area of the US state of Maryland. She views the world through two openings. One is her flat-screen TV, the other her kitchen window. She watches nature shows, crime dramas and Fox News through the one opening, and the seasons, her neighbors and the weather through the other.

Until recently, it was easy for Kinsey to separate these two windows from reality. But then the lines between them became blurred. Her kitchen-window images appeared on her TV screen, while television crews appeared outside her kitchen window. No matter where she went in her house, the images were all the same. And sometimes she even saw herself on TV, as if looking into a mirror.

That was last summer, when whistleblower Edward Snowden shocked the world with his revelations.

Snowden was once Kinsey's neighbor. It was a while ago, but she hasn't forgotten the experience. He lived on the other side of a narrow path between their two kitchen windows. They were 12 feet (3.7 meters) apart, says Kinsey. Perhaps she's just guessing, or perhaps she actually measured the space. For a time, the distance seemed relevant to issues of global politics.

The neighbor became a witness, and her experiences an indication of how far Snowden and his fellow Americans have grown apart. Kinsey can attest to this with every fiber of her being. The quiet young man has become a threat to America and, with it, to Kinsey herself. In the summer, a majority of Americans were convinced that Snowden deserved to be put on trial. This stance is especially widespread in Kinsey's age group.

She was so close to him. They were practically facing each other, with Snowden on one side and Kinsey on the other, two Americans who were home a lot and didn't get much sleep. Snowden was reportedly constantly glued to his computer. Kinsey suffers from neuropathy, an illness of the nervous system that makes it hard for her to walk. Besides, there aren't too many places she could walk to in her neighborhood.

Kinsey lives in a community called Woodland Village, which consists of 309 two-story wooden houses, all built in the same year, lined up in cul-de-sacs like pearls on a necklace. Some are brown, some blue and some green, like the little boxes in the 1962 song of the same name by Malvina Reynolds, a satirical reference to suburban tract housing. There is a blue one and a yellow one, and they all look just the same.

Woodland Village is a neighborhood in Ellicott City, a town made up of similar developments, all with appealing names. It's easy to get lost in Ellicott City. A sign at the entrance to Woodland Village sends a clear message to outsiders: Private Property.

My Neighbor, the Traitor's Mom

On a gray November day in Maryland, Kinsey opens her door a crack and squints into the daylight. She is wearing a dark-blue sweater with a pattern of stars and snowflakes. The Christmas season starts early in American suburbia. Kinsey looks out at the empty street. The air is clear, and she can hear the sound of a leaf blower in the distance. She shuts the door behind us. There is a dining chair in front of the kitchen window, which she apparently uses as an observation post of sorts when she wants to look out the window. The Venetian blinds are lowered and only open slightly, but enough to see the Snowdens' windows between the slats.

Edward Snowden moved into the house 12 years ago. He lived there alone for two years, had a roommate for one year and then his mother, Wendy, moved in with him. Snowden subsequently lived in Switzerland, Japan and Hawaii, but his mother still lives in the house.

Wendy Snowden is at work. She works as a court employee. Kinsey watched her leave the house for work this morning, and she'll watch her come home again later on. Sometimes the two women meet on the path between their houses. They used to chat briefly with each other whenever that happened -- about the weather, the children, the dog or their respective ailments. Wendy Snowden is an epileptic, while Kinsey has diabetes.

But they no longer speak to each other. Her neighbor's son is a traitor to his country, says Kinsey, who is convinced that Snowden's mother and his sister knew about his plans. The two women visited him in Hawaii shortly before he left the country. Kinsey insists that they were there to say goodbye. She knows that that was the reason, although she declines to say who told her. She has thin lips. There no excuse for that sort of behavior, she says.

When she runs into her neighbor today, Kinsey looks down at the ground. She pets the Snowdens' dog, a Labrador named Cinder. He's a good dog, she says, and it isn't his fault.

The last time the two women spoke, Wendy Snowden asked Kinsey why she had to tell a journalist that she, Snowden's mother, is an epileptic. She was worried that it might cause problems for her at work.

"I assume she was trying to make me feel guilty," says Kinsey. "But it didn't work. After all, her disease isn't a secret. Actually, what I want to know is why she's still allowed to drive a car."

She nods at the Snowdens' window, where there isn't much to be seen since the curtains are drawn. Wendy never had curtains before her son flew to Hong Kong, says Kinsey, and she was always thought that was odd. Or perhaps she has just now decided that she thought it was odd. Kinsey is trying to form an opinion about her mysterious neighbor. She is trying to reconcile the images outside her window and the ones she sees on TV, images of her small world and the much larger world beyond it, of her idealized suburban world and a world of high treason. On the one side, there is Hong Kong, Moscow and trans-Atlantic relations; on the other, there are the leaves changing color outside her window.

Kinsey says that she has found 1,367 hits on the Internet that mention her name in connection with Snowden. She once counted the number of hits, just as she seems to know the distance between the two houses.

Thrown into the Spotlight

Kinsey, 63, grew up in Florida and later moved to Maryland with her husband. She was trained as a hairdresser, but she never worked. She used to cut her husband's hair, but today she only cuts her own. She has trouble standing up, she says, and besides, most people don't know how to describe the kind of hairstyle they want, which only leads to misunderstandings.

Kinsey has spent much of the last 30 years of her life basically sitting at the window, looking outside and waiting for her husband to come home from work. He works as a quality inspector in a factory in Baltimore that makes piston rings and seals. His commute to work takes exactly nine minutes, she says. They've timed it. He calls her when he leaves work. They have no children. They go bowling on Tuesdays, and they barbecue on Sundays. There were few surprises in Kinsey's life -- until, of course, the day when Edward Snowden was in Hong Kong and the first stories about his revelations started coming out.

His fate has shown a spotlight on Kinsey. But now that he's gone, that light is beginning to fade.

"It was never about me, just about the man over there," she says.

She looks through the slats in the blinds, the November light giving her face a grayish tint.

Kinsey fidgets nervously on her kitchen chair. She hasn't felt as safe at her observation post recently as she used to. One neighbor berated her because she had talked to the media. He lives diagonally across the street from the Snowdens. She calls him a hothead and says that even the police agreed with her assessment, when they were called to the house after he had had a fight with his girlfriend, and they took away his weapons. She thought he was working today, she says, but apparently he's home. She sees his curtains move. The guy is a ticking time bomb, says Kinsey.

She moves her head away from the blinds. The neighbor hasn't been living in the house very long and didn't know Snowden at all, says Kinsey. She and her husband, on the other hand, have been living there for more than 16 years, longer than most residents of Woodland Village. And she has always been there, after all, and sometimes was even up at two or three in the morning. She hasn't been sleeping well since she became ill. She had surgery on both feet. The pain keeps her up at night, she says. When she couldn't sleep, she would watch TV or look out the window. And there he was, she says, always at his computer.

From Witness to Judge

She gets up and takes a few steps away from the window.

"All I ever told people was what I knew, never more than that," she says. "The gentleman from CNN and the guys from NBC told me that it was such a pleasure to talk to someone who really knows what they're talking about. I don't contradict myself, I don't waver and I don't make things up. I just say what I actually saw."

She pulls out the issue of People in which she was quoted. A neighbor gave it to her. The issue is from June, and there is a photo of actor Jennifer Aniston on the cover, along with the headline: Wedding on Hold? The story about Snowden and Kinsey appears on page 80, after a long series of photos about the maternity clothes worn by celebrities over the ages. It's a short piece, and Kinsey is quoted at the beginning and end. First she says that he was "a well-mannered, nice boy." Then, at the end, she says: "Last night was the first time his mom ever drew her curtains."

The headline reads: Edward Snowden: Truth-Teller or Traitor?

Kinsey glances at the page. The People photographers took a picture of her, but they didn't use it. There are only a few photos of Snowden, the same ones that are printed in other media stories, along with a photo of the house in Hawaii where he last lived with his girlfriend. The caption reads that when they moved out of the house, "they left only a vacuum and ice scraper." Kinsey looks at the photo of Snowden, who some are already treating as a Che Guevara-like icon.

"He's no hero," she says. "He isn't just a threat to my security, but to that of the entire country and other countries, as well. He's a traitor, and he should be tried, convicted and sent to prison. For the rest of his life. Just like other traitors. I'm sorry."

It isn't the same thing she said in the article, nor is it what she said in all the TV and radio stories. Her tone has changed. It reflects the opinion she and her husband have formed in the last few months, an opinion about the man who is making a laughing stock of the United States.

The man she used to watch from her window wasn't nearly as close as he seemed. Snowden has withdrawn from her and his country. Kinsey has transformed herself from a witness into a judge. She finds him guilty of betraying his country, and she sentences him, in absentia, to life in prison.

"At first, we thought: innocent until proven guilty," she says. "But that changed after a few weeks, when he showed up on TV and said he was proud to be a spy."

"He's not intelligent," she adds. "Maybe he knows his way around computers."

One Lens on the World

Kinsey used to think Snowden was a genius, the way he sat there at night, staring at his computer. But then she found out that he didn't even graduate from high school and that he dropped out of a community college after a little while. He tried his luck in the army reserve, but quit during basic training. She doesn't quite remember where she got all this information, she says. Maybe from one of the reporters. Or maybe she saw it on TV.

Kinsey watches Fox and CNN. Her husband watches the news for an hour every day. He has a tall recliner that's right in front of the TV. She sits on the couch behind him or eats in the kitchen while he watches the news. Then he tells her what he saw. It's always the same stories, she says. They have a subscription to the Baltimore Sun. Her husband won't allow the Washington Post into his house, and certainly not the New York Times. Those newspapers create their own reality, says her husband. It has nothing to do with the truth. This is the way Joyce Kinsey forms her view of the world.

Like Kinsey, these are the things many Americans know about Snowden: He didn't do well in school. He wasn't good at finishing things. His girlfriend is a pole dancer. He's in Russia because no one else wants him. It's the kind of information that describes a man no one needs to take seriously.

It occurs to Kinsey that Snowden never could look her in the eye. Her father told her once that she should never trust someone who couldn't look her in the eye.

Her father was an electrical engineer who died eight years ago. And now, at a time when she is searching for answers, he is her moral authority, a sort of expert on the American soul. Her father and a few others founded a company that made components for long-range missiles. They did most of their work for the US Air Force. Her father was an intelligent but tight-lipped man, she says. He often had to travel to the desert in Arizona or New Mexico, where the Air Force conducts missile tests. He never talked about it. He traveled to Japan, Finland, Iceland and Germany with his warheads, and if anyone asked him what he did for a living, he would say he was an engineer.

He took his secrets with him to the grave. When Kinsey spoke with one of his partners at the funeral, he told her that he regretted that the company had no way of accessing the information that was in his head. He never wrote things down, says Kinsey. Everything was in his head. He died suddenly of a heart attack. And whatever he knew, he never told anyone about it. Her father was the opposite of Snowden, who likes to be in the spotlight, as she puts it.

"The guy wanted to be famous. That's all he wanted. I have neighbors who work at the NSA and don't brag about it like Snowden. They've signed non-disclosure agreements," says Kinsey. "And I don't ask them about it, either. I know the deal. Even when I was a kid, I knew what it meant to keep a secret. I got that from Daddy."

Foreign Suspicions

Kinsey is sitting on the edge of her chair in the living room, ready to jump up at any moment. Her eyes scan the dim, spotless room like searchlights. The carpeting is beige, and there are little bowls on the coffee table filled with candy left over from Halloween: a bowl of chocolate-covered nuts, one of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and one of Hershey's milk chocolate bars.

The fireplace looks as though it had never been used, with pictures of nephews and nieces, along with two photos of her husband, on the mantelpiece. He looks thin in the photos, younger than his wife, and he has a moustache. He shaved it off once, but it made him look like a boy, she says, and people in the supermarket thought he was her son. So he had to let it grow back. There are no pictures of her. She never looks good in photos, she says. The camera makes her look like she's drunk, and yet she doesn't drink alcohol, never, not even a sip.

The room smells cloyingly clean, the way it smells in American furniture stores or Christmas shops, a floral smell with overtones of cinnamon and chewing gum, the kind of smell that makes you feel untouchable.

The CIA used to call Joyce and her siblings whenever their father was getting ready to go on a trip. The trips were called "missions." They always asked the same questions. Have you been overseas? Do you plan to go overseas? Have you had any foreign visitors?

"Why, Daddy?" she would ask her father.

"Because they want to make sure everything's alright, Joyce," he would reply.

It sounds like a scene from "Lassie" or "Little House on the Prairie." In Kinsey's memories, everything overseas is a foreign, dark power, the source of the threats that the CIA had to attend to. Kinsey has never been overseas, and she doesn't have a passport. And why should she, she asks? She doesn't need one. She and her husband spent their honeymoon in Ocean City, a beach town in Maryland. And they once took a cruise in the Caribbean, but her birth certificate was good enough for that. Born in the USA.

Some 36 percent of Americans don't have a passport, while 60 percent can't even visit Canada. Kinsey's windows on the world are the Discovery Channel, where she watches programs about the most dangerous snakes in North America, and the stories she hears from her husband, who has traveled to China and Poland for work. He told her that when it comes to quality, you constantly have to keep a sharp eye on the Poles and the Chinese -- especially the Chinese.

Her husband says that when an American plane crashes, you can't exactly blame it on the Chinese just because that's where the seals were made. Just kidding.

When Kinsey notices movement behind the slats of her half-closed blinds, she jumps up from the edge of her chair and rushes across the beige carpet to the window, moving with surprisingly agility. Suddenly she seems to forget about her neuropathy, perhaps because the adrenaline masks her pain. She has the look of a hunted animal, but it's usually just a false alarm. Once it's a man who is slinking past the house to repaint the lines on the parking lot. Once it's the mailman. And, finally, it's a neighbor getting his mail. Kinsey jumps around like a chipmunk in the striped light coming from the shades. She insists you can't be too watchful.

She hasn't heard anything about the NSA tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone, but she believes that anyone with a clean conscience should have nothing to hide. The French, she says, have everyone under surveillance. And if that's what they have to do to prevent terrorist attacks, they should sift through everything. Kinsey isn't the only one who feels this way. The majority of Americans believe that the work of the NSA has helped prevent terrorist attacks. And a full 50 percent of Americans believe that monitoring telephone calls and Internet communication is in the public interest.

Keeping Watch

Kinsey and her girlfriends were in a café in Ellicott City on Sept. 11, 2001. Horrible, she says. She'll never forget those images. They were eating cheesecake. Has Germany ever had an attack? No. Well, that says it all. What makes Snowden's actions so reprehensible, she says, is the fact that he fed information to the terrorists. She doesn't like Obama. A real president would have brought that traitor home long ago and given him what he deserves. And Putin, she just heard, is already fed up with Snowden, who just won't stop causing trouble. She pronounces the name Putin the way former President George W. Bush pronounced: Poohtnn.

And the Chinese are laughing in their sleeves.

Why are they doing that?

Because we have all our debt with them, says Kinsey.

The world out there is a constant threat.

Kinsey is still keeping watch. Who else should do it, she asks? She sees Wendy Snowden go to work in the morning and come home in the evening. Sometimes the daughter shows up, but not often. She's a lawyer in Washington. She graduated from the elite Duke University, as Wendy proudly told her when they were still on speaking terms. Snowden's girlfriend, the pole dancer, visits twice a week. She's from Laurel, five miles down the road. A nice girl, as far as she can tell. The hair isn't to Kinsey's taste, and what she does for a living? Well, it's certainly one way to make money, she says. But at least she smiles and doesn't avoid looking at people, like her boyfriend. Kinsey assumes that they're Skyping with Moscow, but she can't prove it, since they keep the curtains closed now.

No one has ever seen the inside of the Snowden's house. Even the people who pick up their mail when they're on vacation are given short shrift at the door, says Kinsey. That's strange, too, isn't it? The girl always stays for five or six hours. But Kinsey has never seen Snowden's father, the only family member who speaks to the media, at the house.

"Now he's puffing himself up on TV, as if he were the best father in the world. But where was he when Edward needed him? He didn't visit him once, all those years," she says. "I would have seen him. I'm always here."

The Comforts of Routine

Kinsey starts getting restless as the sun goes down. Her husband is coming home in two hours. She has to make dinner. He isn't picky when it comes to food, but it has to be ready when he gets home. She's making pizza. The dough is from the supermarket, but she makes the topping herself. She starts peeling onions. Tomorrow is her cleaning day, just like every Saturday. Sunday is all about football. Her husband is a Baltimore Ravens fan. She once wanted to get him tickets to a game, but he prefers watching the games on TV, from his recliner. It gives him the best view of the game, and he doesn't have to wait in line for a beer. She'll be sitting on the sofa behind him. Sometimes he falls asleep because he works so hard, she says.

It sounds as if she were describing the most beautiful moments in their life: the sleeping, hardworking husband sitting in front of the TV, while she keeps watch alone. It's Thanksgiving this week, and they're going to her sister-in-law's house for dinner. She's bringing a ham and a bean casserole, as she does every year. After that, it'll be time to start preparing for Christmas. Decorations are important affair in America's suburbs. It isn't hard to imagine what her house will look like all lit up.

The door closes. There is no one outside. It's 15 minutes from here to NSA headquarters -- as long as there's no traffic, says Kinsey. It's very quiet, with just a few autumn leaves rustling in the parking spaces.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Spiegel (Alemania)


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