The Common Good

Aung Sun Suu Kyi and Rodney King

In 1991, Rodney King was stopped and beaten by a group of Los Angeles police officers. The stop was not unusual, and the beating was a tragic reminder of the history and the reality of police brutality in the United States. The difference this time was that the beating was recorded on videotape. Rodney King became a symbol of racist injustice perpetrated by ordinary people, of injustice perpetrated by law enforcement.

Aung Sun Suu Kyi photo, Dan Kitwood/Getty Images; Rodney King photo David Living
Aung Sun Suu Kyi photo, Dan Kitwood/Getty Images; Rodney King photo David Livingston/Getty Images

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Also in 1991, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Aung Sun Suu Kyi, a Burmese activist for democracy. Under house arrest at the time, she could not travel to Oslo to receive the award. She was then and is today a symbol of patient persistent witness against oppression and for human rights.

On June 16, 2012, Aung Sun Suu Kyi received her 1991 prize in Oslo. On June 17, 2012, Rodney King was found dead in the swimming pool of his home. Both of these individuals are important because of their choices for peace.

In his presentation remarks, Thorbjorn Jagland, Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee spoke of the need to bear witness to oppression. He said: “Fortunately in today’s world, human rights do not recognize national frontiers.  Oppressive rulers who abuse these rights with brutal power must know that there are always courageous individuals who will oppose them. The world wants to keep an eye on the oppressors.”

The Nobel Peace Prize was a way to focus attention on the oppression in Burma.  Aung Sun Suu Kyi said it was also a way for people working for democracy to know that they were not alone. In her Nobel Lecture, she spoke of the Burmese concept of peace.

“The Burmese concept of peace can be explained as the happiness arising from the cessation of factors that militate against the harmonious and the wholesome.  The word nyein-chan translates literally as the beneficial coolness that comes when a fire is extinguished.”

In 1992, Los Angeles suffered one of the most destructive rebellions in its history. After an all-white jury in Simi Valley, Calif., acquitted the police officers who had viciously beaten Rodney King, people reacted angrily to the verdict. People died. Property was destroyed. Rodney King spoke haltingly from his heart: “Can’t we all get along?”

It is a question that is elemental but not elementary; it is simple but not simplistic.

King could have reacted with anger, bitterness and a will for vengeance. Instead he sought nyein-chan; he sought to cool the fires.  Just as each of us must face our personal demons day by blessed day, so did Rodney King. Still he became a voice for justice through reconciliation.  His was a voice for the peace that we each are responsible to make as we go about our lives. We each can choose peace moment by moment.

In her Nobel Lecture, Aung Sun Suu Kyi said that she does not expect perfect peace on earth. I say that our moral evolution toward a more perfect peace on earth is the everyday work of ordinary people.  istory does not reveal its alternatives, but had the police officers who beat Rodney King made a different choice, the world would have been different. Aung Sun Suu Kyi is correct when she says:

“Even if we do not achieve perfect peace on earth, because perfect peace is not of this earth, common endeavors to gain peace will unite individuals and nations in trust and friendship and help to make our human community safer and kinder.”

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