The most effective clandestine operations are so obvious you don’t see them at all. They’re hiding in plain sight.
Only in the retrospect of history will the massive and daring covert campaign—call it Enduring Touchdown—be dissected, understand, marveled at.
But before those necessary decades have elapsed let’s take a few steps back—a mere five days since the last installment. Have a look. The thing is staring you in the face.
Only the most gullible—as in millions of sports fans at home and abroad—would believe that it can be a coincidence that the New England Patriots launched their dynastic run of six of Super Bowl victories in seventeen years in February of 2002, just a few months after the Twin Towers fell. How convenient that a team called the Patriots, one flying red-white-and-blue colors and sporting on its helmets a strong-jawed freedom fighter with a flag for his stylized tricorne hat, should dominate the most holy national ritual, itself a surrogate for, and buttress of, American military might. If football is war, then the New England Patriots are the winning team in the War on Terror.
That the franchise’s victory in Super Bowl XXXVI (class, please note how the grandiose use of Roman numerals projects an aura of imperial power) on the last play demonstrated that real courage under fire was necessary. Neanderthal Tom Brady was the man to lead the charge. (Later the redoubtable quarterback would proudly claim himself “a good friend” of Donald Trump and remain true to his golfing buddy even under fire.) Setting the stage for those final heroics, the 97-yard victory-sealing fumble return by the Patriots earlier in the fourth quarter of the 2002 game was called back. That holding penalty was literally a false flag, called in by mission control somewhere deep down in the Deep State so as to allow for the “thrilling” display of Patriotic resolve that followed. Call it pitch-and-catch propaganda. It sent vital a message to foreign evils and homeland heroes, from Saddam Hussein to future Sergeant Yorks: Patriots will always win in the end.
Or almost always. There must be setbacks in order to keep things seeming real. Therefore the Patriots, Brady and Belichick (another bud of Trump) can’t hoist the Lombardi trophy every time. It’s already risky to send them to the big show nine years out of the last seventeen—more than half of the games. The last-second goal-line interception by the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seahawks risked exposing the whole operation as pure manipulation. You throw a pass at the one-yard-line rather than pound it in with Marshawn Lynch!? Apparently the biggest blunder since the since the Bay of Pigs, the play was called in from Langley. Last year’s victory of Eagles—another fearsome American symbol—was a necessary corrective. Call it implausible deniability.
But the battle is not just for territory on the field but, more importantly, for the hearts and minds of the people, from Foxboro to Fallujah. Operations must be considered from many, complementary perspectives: strategic, tactical, liturgical. Fumbles, field goals, and final scores belong to the first two categories; the crucial delivery of national anthems and halftime shows to the third.
We are told that the NFL has an image problem. Colin Kaepernick, already having banked forty million dollars from his shortened pro football career, accuses collusive team owners of barring him from the game because of his knee-taking at the national anthem. The hokey bit of song that occasioned this stance is an egregious mash-up of an English drinking song and a bad batch of poetry from a rabid antebellum racist slaveholder. (Speaking of political gestures, why haven’t the many statues of Francis Scott Key been pulled from their pedestals across this country, including the one in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco? That’s the question I asked myself when I recently strolled past. A bronze Kaepernick with big fro would look much better up on that plinth.) From the purgatorial side-line, the former San Francisco quarterback alleviates the pain of gridiron exclusion with a multi-million dollar Nike deal, kicked-off at the start of this year’s football season with a supposedly controversial ad in which he claims he has risked everything for principle. His protest, however noble, is hardly comparable to Muhammad Ali risking jail time and forfeiting the best athletic years for refusing to be inducted into the army during the Vietnam War.
In spite—or perhaps because—of the supposed Kaepernick threat, NFL revenues are up. Yet even if the market has passed judgement, security measures had to be undertaken.
Enduring Touchdown moved into action, now calling a play that Bear Bryant would have dearly appreciated: the triple co-option.
First bring in the kids. Singing first for the smug white owners, non-knee-taking players, worldwide television viewers, and ticketholders in Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium was the Grammy-nominated teenage sister-act, Chloe X Halle. The Atlanta natives appeared to exact their own (or their handlers’) musical revenge on Irving Berlin’s pre-anthem, encircling his America the Beautiful with guerrilla harmonies and soprano sniper fire, the siblings’ fantastical flourishes executed with jaw-dropping virtuosity . True, one has to assume that it was all pre-recorded in a pop-up black site CIA studio, but the sheen of spontaneity was thrilling nonetheless. While the pair had put the black into Berlin’s whitebread Beautiful, it was as endearing as it was dispiriting to see Chloe X Halle hold hands sweetly after their final vocal flares echoed through the arena. One couldn’t help but feel that they had been duped into performing their musical magic act.
Still more venerable daughter of Atlanta, Gladys Knight was next up for the marquee moment: the National Anthem. Knight had come under heavy fire for agreeing to hymn the rocket’s red glare. But hymn it she did. The start was pure cooption in sound: the piped-in orchestral introduction, presumably the work of the same CIA Symphony, sounded like it had been lifted from Max Steiner’s score for Gone with the Wind.
There was even a snatch of Dixie to be heard in the swooning nod to the Old South. As Knight pushed against the instrumental forces of reaction a harp—yes, a bloody harp!—counseled her to hold the line. At the half-way point an English horn—not an American one!—meandered above the fruited fake-turf plain, further pacifying the Empress of Soul. Knight went off with the bombs bursting in air, seemingly emphatic in resisting the hegemony of the beat, not just ornamenting the anthem’s tune, but sending a melodic knee into the inebriated groin of the Anacreontic Ode as she sang that “our flag was still there.” She gave another apparently disrespectful nudge at “wave” then held onto “free” for an ever-loving two seconds billowed aloft by more harp updrafts. A dramatic, aggrandizing pause and a massive ritardando stoked by trumpets led towards climax at a so-called deceptive cadence—a harmonic feint—on the final word “brave.” Deception indeed! For all the glories of her seventy-four-year-old voice and her magisterial performance, Knight had been had, even as she refused to cede the sonic space occupied by her enduring last note to the CIA symphonists as the Air Force Thunderbirds screamed past over the arena’s circular opening to the twilight sky above. The real reason for the Mercedes-Benz retractable roof was revealed: not to let in the peach-scented Georgia air but for the money shot of the obligatory flyover. As the F-16s jetted out of sight and the orchestra concluded, Knight held on to that note in ostensive defiance of concord, synchronization, musical servitude. But even if she had had the last word, she was the one who had been had.
Concluding the pre-game rites was the coin toss, the ritual performed by Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Dr. Bernice King, with Civil Rights leaders Andrew Young and John Lewis looking on. Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and to God the things which are God’s; and, O Lord and Langley, make sure the Rams call the coin toss; they gotta win something!
Singing or not singing, kneeling or not kneeling, flipping or not flipping—these are distractions. The real issues are poverty, militarism, and ecological devastation. Before the game had even started, Enduring Touchdown had triple co-optioned past all three and into the patriotic end zone.
After the counter-terror heroics of Chloe X Halle and Gladys—and even the rigged coin toss—the halftime show was pure sedation. After various African-American A-listers had refused the summons from the NFL, Maroon 5 snapped up the bait. Their performance began with a phantasmagoric display of shock-and-awe fireworks: the first words sung to this fusillade were “How dare you say my behavior is unacceptable”—an unconcealed retort to those who had criticized the group for accepting the late invitation.
But their opening salvo hardly counted as a provocation given the numbing blandness of their music, fare that even the Star Spangled Banner and American the Beautiful far outshone. Rappers Travis Scott and Big Boi made fleeting cameos across the seemingly endless thirteen-minute spectacle, the latter pulling up in a vintage Caddy and a big white fur coat. Trafficking in the stalest clichés that could be dredged up from African American iconography, Mr. Boi mumbled and bumbled, huffed and puffed and then receded from view—a misfired ad for himself. The Marooners’ self-promotion, on the other hand, hit the mark: Billboard reported yesterday that the band’s sales have jumped 488% since the show.
Lead singer Adam Levine later crooned “I was so high” into God-fearing living rooms across the Empire. Near the show’s anti-climax he bared his tattooed and waxed torso for the world to see.
The War on Drugs has been lost. Nipplegate is a distant memory. But the Great Patriotic War on Terror gets replayed ever Super Bowl Sunday.