COMMENTARY | Roger Ebert was as much Chicago as Lower Wacker Drive or that Thai restaurant around the corner you always order from, or that bastion of independent bookstores, Unabridged Books. He was real Chicago, the Chicago Chicagoans keep close and share, sometimes a little grudgingly, with the rest of the country.
He was no tourist attraction.
He was the shortcut around expressway gridlock, the quickest way across the Loop. Which is why, of all groups, Westboro Baptist Church has no business at his funeral. His death, just as his life, is a part of this city, and that group has no part of it.
They, nonetheless, planned to protest the memorial of a man whose life had nothing, really, to do with them, and everything to do with the city he embodied.
It doesn’t look like it happened. Reports MStarz, Westboro was a no-show for the funeral at Chicago’s iconic Holy Name Cathedral. Good.
It leaves a sad crater when a city loses someone like Ebert. You can’t replace the gaping hole in the skyline; there’s no way to make it look the way it did. Which is what makes the odious nature of these Westboro “protests” all the more ugly.
Though it seems they failed with Ebert, they do show up and try to disrupt the memorials for our soldiers. They tried to protest funerals of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.They’ve picketed weddings, and they’ve picketed graduations. They follow the triumphs and tragedies of our nation like fanatical ghouls, and attempt to make themselves important where they shouldn’t matter at all.
Like a virus, they try to insert themselves into the DNA of history. And, like a virus, they serve their own selfish ends without regard to their host.
I don’t know why they didn’t make it today, though I’m relieved for his widow, Chaz Ebert, his family, his friends and his city that they didn’t. Maybe the idea of the big, bad unwelcoming streets of Chicago proved too daunting for their frail, hate-soaked sensibilities. Maybe many of their members aren’t permitted within a certain distance of schools; there’s one close enough to the church to matter, if that’s the case.
I know it has nothing to do with a crisis of conscience, given that the vile behavior of Westboro members pretty much establishes that they don’t have any to start.
Whatever the reason, the funeral proceeded without them, friends and family mourned without their disruption, and Roger Ebert deserved nothing less.
But what about the others? What about those soldiers? What about the graduates and the newlyweds? What about the children slaughtered in their schools?
The concept of truly free speech requires a sense of responsibility of the speaker, an understanding that respect and empathy are not censorship. It’s clear that Westboro Baptist Church cannot handle that responsibility.
But what can we do about that?
Meanwhile, wherever he may be now, back here in his city, Roger Ebert will be greatly missed. I can’t help but hope that he’s somewhere with Gene Siskel — arguing away like they’re cracking the code to world peace — and whatever they’re watching, they’re giving it two thumbs up.