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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

O'Reilly: What can Brooklyn Bridge white flags mean?

A white flag flies atop the west tower

A white flag flies atop the west tower of New York's Brooklyn Bridge, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. Someone replaced two American flags on the bridge with mysterious white flags. Credit: AP

What can they mean -- those whitewashed American flags over the Brooklyn Bridge? Any minute now we're going to find out. Secrets don't last in New York.

But until someone takes credit -- or accepts blame -- for scaling Roebling's stone towers, the who what and why are open to speculation. Excellent.

The police don't suspect terrorists. That's good. Very good. So they're probably not ground markers for incoming aircraft. But what the heck are they?

I thought the same of the ugly orange banners in Central Park a decade ago. And we were told about them in advance. Remember "The Gates" in 2005? Remember Christo and Jeanne-Claude? That whole thing would have been far more interesting had the banners appeared unexpectedly, through the morning mist, like the white flags did over the Brooklyn Bridge.

But they didn't. We watched those ugly orange -- sorry, deep-saffron-colored -- banners go up and we watched them go down. Some of us said "ooh." All of us felt dumb. And we moved on. Hopefully, the explanation behind the white flags is less esoteric than the one behind the saffron ones. Hopefully it doesn't involve math.

Chances are it's political. Probably something about the Middle East. I hope it's not. That would be disturbing and anticlimactic. And wouldn't someone have claimed credit by now? So maybe it's not that. Maybe it's a profound statement about America's lost resolve. I could accept that. Or maybe a couple of weekend rock climbers from DUMBO got drunk on Pabst Blue Ribbon Monday night and found themselves standing atop the Brooklyn Bridge early Tuesday morning. I could accept that, too.

Whoever did it should be cut a break. As long as they're not bad guys. The public should demand it. Philippe Petit was headed to the big house after tiptoeing back and forth on a rope between the World Trade Towers in 1974, in a stiff wind. Public adulation saved him. Anyone willing to do that deserves a tip o' the cap not a jail cell, the people cried. The Manhattan district attorney heard them and quickly reduced the charges. Petit got a slap on the wrist, and the term "artcrime" was coined. (Petit reportedly tiptoed right out of the courthouse and into the bed of an adoring fan he had met on his way up the courthouse steps. Remember that fellas: "artcrime.")

How about the "Maple Syrup Event." Remember that one -- when the west side of Manhattan smelled like Aunt Jemima pancakes? That was fun for awhile. Not at first, of course. At first, we thought we were under chemical warfare attack. But after that it was a genuinely intriguing Manhattan mystery. Turns out it was Fenugreek seeds in New Jersey, used to make artificial maple syrup. Let's hope the truth behind white flags isn't as depressing as Fenugreek seeds from Jersey.

I hope the white flags are an old-fashioned practical joke. An ongoing one. New York could use one of those, especially now that its residents have been ranked the unhappiest people in America. Maybe flags will begin popping up above landmarks all over town. That's unlikely though. There are a gazillion cameras pointed at landmarks in New York City; the pranksters would surely be caught. Then again, maybe not. Maybe this is a cat-and-mouse campaign, a statement against Big Brother. That would be interesting.

We used to have great practical jokes in the city -- before 9/11. Remember the Charging Bull at the Stock Exchange in December '89? That was a great New York mystery for a day or so. It was hard then to get away for long with placing a 7,100-pound bronze bull below a Christmas tree in lower Manhattan. Can you imagine trying to get away with that now?

I was at a news conference near City Hall earlier this week when the TV crews started packing up and wandering toward the bridge. Something about a white flag. Sounded silly at the time. Has the news really gotten that dumbed down, I thought. But right around now, I have to admit, those whitewashed flags have got me fascinated. Please don't spoil it. Please let them be about something good. And whoever did it; know that your mystery is killing us. Please let it last just a little bit longer.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.