Murder In A Silent Place

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CHRIS USHER FOR TIME

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The great genius of deaf activism over the past half-century has been to develop the idea that rather than a disability, deafness--especially among ASL speakers--can constitute a separate culture as rich as any based on a spoken language. Nobody who spends more than a day or two at Gallaudet would debate that assertion. Nor would anybody doubt that the community enjoys a rare, fond solidarity, which may be traceable to the fact that many deaf people spend their first decade or two in an ocean of hearing people, isolated from others like themselves. Says freshman Stephen Farias: "When I meet hearing kids, it's like, 'How you doin'?'" It's boring. When I meet deaf kids, it's like, 'This kid is cool.' If I see a kid signing at the mall, I'll go up and introduce myself."

"Even if you really hate this person, if they're deaf, they're still a part of us," says Tawny Holmes . "It's almost like the bald eagle; we're an endangered species or something. We won't kill each other." Affirms biology professor Michael Moore: "Murder is not within our...it's not us."

What, then, is Joe Mesa's alleged deed? An aberration? Or something new in the community? In the past few decades, just as the deaf have established a national profile, some of their cultural distinctives have been eroding. Deaf children, once segregated in residential schools, are often mainstreamed today. Cochlear-implant operations, once opposed by some deaf people as insulting and possibly harmful, have gained in acceptance. Pagers and e-mail are supplanting bulkier TTY, the small teletype that enables deaf people to use phone lines. Because most televisions now come equipped for closed-captioning, deaf Americans, historically less well informed--even less fashionable--than their peers, are catching up.

Could serial murder be another cultural import, a virus floated in on the shared ether? Only if one assumes that it wasn't dormant in the community all along. In 1980 a Gallaudet student stabbed another to death and threw him out an eighth-story dorm window; the incident is little remembered on campus today. This may be because it contradicts the classic (and largely accurate) deaf model for misfortune--that it emanates from the hearing world. Says the publicity office's Prickett: "Most of the stories that get passed around are about a deaf person being hurt by misunderstanding or ignorance on the part of a hearing person. That's what made these murders so shocking, and that's what will take some digesting--that it's not only them; it can be us against us. The deaf community has to own it."

The cruelly dashed promise of Eric Plunkett and Benjamin Varner and the horrible loss to their families remain an open wound. Then there is Thomas Minch, fully exonerated of any guilt, who has sued the D.C. police for $2 million and has thus far not answered the university's invitation to return to campus. And there is the still raw sensibility surrounding the school's gay community. Perhaps the most hopeful sign is that Mesa's girlfriend, whom the police cleared of any complicity in the murders, is planning to return to Gallaudet in the fall.

Fernandes is sleeping again. "I go some days and no one pages me at home," she says. During the crisis, she received e-mail from deaf people all over the country, from Seattle, Miami, Santa Fe. Many had no personal connection to her or the school. Several volunteered to drop what they were doing and fly to Washington to help patrol the dorms. Now that she has had time to ponder, she is left with the odd impression that nationwide, "deaf people have probably become tighter because of what was happening here."

Fernandes' office has a panoramic view of Gallaudet. Cogswell lies behind her. But her vista takes in the campus' green heart, its little crowds of students signing garrulously between classes and its tiger lilies and zinnias, blooming after a hard winter. "And if nothing else happens here," she says, "the community will prevail."

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