The detective’s parable

Doug Samuelson

The conversation in the sports bar had grown quite animated as the news update on TV, between football games, turned to the political candidates’ comments about the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Jack and Tom, two OR/MS analysts, sat quietly at the end of the bar, trying to ignore the increasingly extreme opinions being loudly expressed, but they rolled their eyes at each other a few times. The man sitting next to Tom was even more reticent, not even changing facial expressions.

However, when the TV showed one candidate urging that many mosques in the United States be closed and that no Syrian refugees be admitted, Jack could stand it no longer. “Now that,” he said, “just might be the stupidest idea of the year. How does this genius think they’d ever enforce closing all the mosques, even if it was constitutional? What happened to the First Amendment?”

“And it’s just more of what we were reading about in that column in OR/MS Today 10 years ago, about how the terrorists’ best plan is to keep provoking us into expensive, embarrassing over-reactions,” Tom added.

At this, the quiet man next to Tom added softly, “Those aren’t even the best reasons it’s a bad idea.”

Tom and Jack turned to him, surprised. “Tell us more,” Tom urged. “By the way, I’m Tom, this is Jack.”

“I’m Al,” the other man said. “I’m a retired police detective. If we had good information that a few dozen mosques, out of the two thousand or so in the country, were being used to plan and organize crimes, why in the world shut them down? We’d be far better off to go get warrants and bug them. If we know where the bad guys are making plans, why drive them to move somewhere else? Right?”

Jack and Tom nodded.

“And,” Al continued, “any cop knows that human informers are the key to solving crimes. If you turn a whole community against you, you lose! In fact, there’s this approach called community policing, where the whole idea is to build networks and relationships so they tell you where the bad guys are. If you don’t do that, they tell the bad guys where you are! So what do these so-called leaders of ours think they’re talking about?”

“Beats me,” Jack laughed. “But now that you mention it, I think the idea of reaching out to communities applies everywhere, not just in the U.S. I was at a seminar a few weeks ago where one speaker mentioned a new book by a retired special operations lieutenant colonel about how we’re messing up in Afghanistan. This light colonel spent years building village stability operations teams and claims that’s what was working, where anything did. I know that figuring out which tribes could be persuaded to help us rather than fighting us was reportedly one of the big keys to the turnaround in Iraq.”

“It was,” Al acknowledged. “My son was over there for a couple of years, and that’s what he was telling me. But then he also said that when we pulled out, with no Status of Forces agreement to keep a presence there, those networks our intel and community operations guys built fell apart quickly. With our guys gone, those people ran for their lives or got killed. That’s why things went so badly in such a hurry – that and the amount of materiel we left behind that wound up falling into the wrong hands. By the way, what was the name of that book?”

“It’s called ‘Game Changers,’ ” Jack replied. “It’s not on Amazon yet, but there’s a site you can find on the Web to order it from. And I’d certainly recommend it.”

“So, community policing and community building go global. What else does the good colonel recommend?” Al asked.

“One more major thing,” Jack responded. “He says you have to develop a compelling narrative, so people can easily understand why they would want to be on your side. That’s where he says we’ve fallen short.”

“So does General Flynn, the guy who was in charge of intel in Afghanistan five years ago and recommended totally overhauling our intel organization there. He just recently gave an interview saying that no one knows what the administration’s strategy in the Middle East is, and that’s our biggest problem,” Al affirmed.

“I think there was an article about him in OR/MS Today, too,” Jack said.

“Sounds as if we need a better story to tell our own military leaders and diplomats, too,” Tom added.

“Yeah,” Al agreed, “it turns out Plato was right, doesn’t it? He said somewhere that the people who tell the stories run society. My chief of detectives used to remind us of that all the time when he was telling us how to deal with the media on a hot case. Get your story organized, get it out there, tell it well and make sure everyone sticks to it, and you end up driving the case rather than having others drive you. He said that was the secret to Ronald Reagan’s success. Still true, isn’t it?”

“Yeah!” Jack exclaimed. “Now all we have to do is figure out how to get the right story heard over all the shouting.”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va. The references are to “The Anthropologist’s Parable,” OR/MS Today, June 2005; “Changing the War with Analytics: Top U.S. Intelligence Officer in Central Asia Recommends Massive Overhaul of How Information is Gathered and Utilized,” OR/MS Today, June 2010; and “Game Changers” by Scott Mann, 2015, available from the Tribal Analysis Center,