Mark MacKinnon and Joanna Slater report on plans by France and Britain to increase security measures in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in January. They introduce the question: what price, in loss of privacy, should we pay for greater security in a democracy?

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Social studies, history, current events

Key Questions to Explore:

  • How far should a democratic society go to prevent terrorist attacks before it undermines the democratic freedoms it is attempting to protect?

New Terminology:

Charlie Hebdo, Dammartin-en-Goële, caricature

Materials Needed:

Globe article, Internet

Time required: One half period plus a homework assignment

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

Note: this lesson can be used in conjunction with the lesson entitled “Citing war on terror, Tories propose sweeping new powers for spies, police” which is also posted on this site. Some common issues are explored in both lessons.

Students will likely have heard of the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France and, of course, the attacks on Parliament Hill here in Canada a couple of months back as well. Students can benefit from a lesson on limiting democratic freedoms in the interests of increased security—at what point does it become self-defeating?

After a brief introduction to the lesson, students will work in pairs to generate a list of freedoms they enjoy, while indicating which ones they would be prepared to give up if it meant lessening the chances of a terrorist attack in the future.

Action (lesson plan and task):

  • Start by engaging students in a brief discussion about Charlie Hebdo. Ensure they know the story—that the offices of an alternative, satirical journal titled Charlie Hebdo, based in Paris, were attacked by radical Islamists who killed several people who worked for the journal. The reasons for the attack had to do with the journal’s publication of cartoons that these radicals felt were insulting to Islam. Western nations decried the attacks, citing the importance of a free press and the rights of democracies to speak and write freely on any topic.
  • Introduce the common saying, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” See how many students agree with this. To those who agree, probe a bit. For example, ask, “So, you would agree that if you’re not breaking any laws, you wouldn’t mind if the police monitored your Internet activity or came to your house and searched your bedroom?” If they’ve changed their mind based on that suggestion, note that privacy is a right we preserve not to hide any wrongs we may have done, but because we value privacy itself as a democratic right. Note that this is also the key to the trade-off: How much privacy are we prepared to give up in the interests of security?
  • Next, encourage students to think about the kinds of freedoms we enjoy in our democracy. Ask them to pair up and take 10 minutes to come up with a list of the kinds of freedoms we have that people who live in non-democratic countries do not have. You could prompt them with a few: Freedom of religion, freedom of association and so on. For more, see this Charter website:
  • When they have finished, see how many rights they were able to list. Ask which ones they would be willing to give up, or have weakened, in the interests of a more secure society.
  • Ask them how many rights and freedoms they think we have under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Note that there are quite a few. Perhaps they’d not thought about the right to live and work in any province, or equal rights for both sexes and so on.
  • Provide students with copies of the article along with the website link, above, and assign the following essay (they are to choose one version): A case for less privacy, more security; or Less privacy means less democracy. They are to:

Read the article and pay particular attention to the following passages:

How far should a state go in monitoring those it suspects of plotting attacks, when they have yet to commit a crime? What more can be done to prevent the next such attack, without infringing on some of the most basic principles of democracy?

Britain’s security chief, Andrew Parker, “But I don’t want a situation where that privacy is so absolute and sacrosanct that terrorists and others who mean us harm can confidently operate from behind those walls without fear of detection.”

Prof. Khosrokhavar said the kind of attack carried out on the offices of Charlie Hebdo – like the attacks in Canada last year, and the December siege at a café in Sydney, Australia – was almost impossible to prevent in a democracy. Police can monitor phone and Internet communications between larger groups of people, he said, but there’s little they can do to counteract a lone gunman, or two brothers who plan an attack from inside their tiny apartment in the Paris suburbs.

Explore the website,, and review the list of rights and freedoms you find there. As part of your essay, itemize the rights and freedoms that you would or would not be willing to sacrifice in the interests of security, along with reasons for doing so; and list reasons why infringing these rights is worth or not worth the potential damage to our democracy.

Consolidation of Learning:

  • Constructive discussion and contribution by pairs of students.

NOTE: Consider a follow-up lesson that focuses on the planned security legislation that will come before the Canadian Parliament in this current session.

Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Successful completion of the writing assignment.

Confirming Activity:

  • Discussion of the writing assignments in a subsequent class.