From The Halloween Files: Arachnophobia Ethics


I love this story!

Early last month, several secretaries in the Logan County (West Virginia) Prosecutor’s Office put up Halloween decorations, including a lot of big hanging fake spiders.  When he saw them, Assistant Prosecutor Chris White freaked out, saying he had arachnophobia, that the decorations weren’t funny, and he couldn’t stand the eight legged things. Then he pulled out his gun, and threatened to shoot the spiders. The gun had no clip, but the staff wasn’t sure; after all, if you are crazy enough to try to shoot fake spiders with an empty gun, you are probably crazy enough to  shoot fake spiders with a loaded gun. The three secretaries who witnessed the meltdown were terrified.

White was suspended for the incident. He’s been with the office for more than five years, according to his boss, John Bennett,who  took it well, saying, “I never saw it coming, that’s for sure. Obviously, I wouldn’t have even hired him if I had seen it coming. And the fact that he’s been there five years and we haven’t had any incidents like this also, to me, is a pretty good indication it’s certainly out of the ordinary.”

Hmmm. How ordinary does drawing a firearm  in an office because of Halloween decorations have to be before you decide, “You know, maybe this guy should be someplace else”?

Shortly after the incident, Bennett sent a memo around banning firearms from the office, but, significantly, not fake spiders. There is an open criminal investigation, but authorities do not expect that they will file charges. Bennett doubts that he will fire White, but will wait to see what the investigation turns up.

Some observations:

  • My ethics scout Fred, who found this and who knows my mind too well, asks if someone with this violent a fear of spiders has an ethical obligation to alert the staff before he goes nuts. I don’t think so. Phobias are weaknesses, and nobody, especially a prosecutor, wants to broadcast weaknesses. He reasonably didn’t expect the issue to come up.

I’ve never understood why spiders are Halloween decorations.

  • Did the secretaries have an ethical obligation to check and see if anyone in the office had Halloween-related phobias? Fear of witches, blood, ghosts or candy corn? I sure hope not. Where would this end? The rational response to such a duty would  be, “Oh, the hell with it. Let’s skip to Thanksgiving.”
  • I assume having a phobia qualifies as a disability under the ADA, but if the spiderphobe wants special consideration as the law requires, he does have to inform his supervisor.
  • Pulling a gun in the office is not justifiable or responsible, phobia or no phobia. It would be responsible to fire White, and compassionate not to. This would be a tough ethics call for me. What would you do, in Bennett’s position?
  • Assuming the determination is that no laws were broken, I doubt this incident would lead to bar discipline as long as there was no other misconduct. It wasn’t in court; he wasn’t practicing law. Does the conduct show him unfit to practice or to be untrustworthy as a prosecutor?

If I were White, however, I’d find another place to work.


Pointer: Fred

Facts: WCHS TV

54 thoughts on “From The Halloween Files: Arachnophobia Ethics

  1. “Does the conduct show him unfit to practice or to be untrustworthy as a prosecutor?”

    It might find him unfit to own a firearm. The incident should come up on a weapons background check. I’m not for gun control, but this might be signature significance on his ability to be a responsible gun owner. If I were living or working in proximity to this guy I’d be very concerned.

    As my mother’s second husband got older he became very irresponsible with his large gun collection. His sons came and removed them after he fired a blank inside their house. I have to say I spent many nights worrying about my mother and his gun issue after that. Later, after he died, I found a shotgun in his den. Chills.

  2. In the field of personnel relations, there is case law that says, at least in NJ, that certain behavior is so egregious that it merits firing even with an otherwise clean record. Any kind of loud, violent or disruptive altercation, in my opinion, reaches that level. You can’t pretend they didn’t happen, and you can’t trust the person who committed them not to trip out again.

    It’s simply not fair to the other employees to ask them to work with someone who can’t control himself with a weapon. Employees have the right to work in a safe environment, leaving aside inherently dangerous jobs like the emergency services. It isn’t safe to be asked to work in an office with someone like that. In order to not destroy his career, though, he should be asked to resign rather than fired.

    On the still-relatively-new tv series Chicago PD, Sergeant Hank Voight sometimes uses the rather sobering line “you think you’re walking away from this?” when confronted by someone threatening violence or a hostage situation. Everyone tempted to lose control to the point of doing something egregious needs to ask himself that before he does it.

    • I did 4 years in prison for possession of an “assault weapon” here in CT; a misdemeanor A (53-202c) offense at the time. No aggravating circumstances, no conveying of threats, no prior altercations or domestic issues, nothing whatsoever suggesting Id ever use it to harm anyone. I guess he’s lucky this didn’t happen in CT. Bunch of dicks.

  3. Hmm..pulling a firearm in a public place under circumstances not warranting deadly force; bad, whether loaded or not. I think Id split the difference and levy some severe sanctions.

  4. Hmm, this is pretty nutty behavior. Why couldn’t he just left the office immediately and calmed himself down? There is component of disturbing anger over pulling out a gun in an office with other coworkers present. The ADA says you have to make reasonable accommodations and I suppose that would mean no fake spiders in the office. Still, this guy needs to be evaluated by a psychiatrist or psychologist as a condition of returning to work. And maybe supplied with some bug spray.

      • Fire him. “Didn’t see it coming?” This guy prosecuted a kid for wearing a tee shirt with a picture of a gun on it. Bad judgement there and super bad judgment for pulling a gun on some secretaries. Fire him.

        • I agree; fire him. He carries a gun, and he brandished it in response to the presence of what he thought were real spiders. So, does he think he is more likely to have to use that gun when endangered by spiders than when endangered by humans? Does he think his fear of spiders justifies his liberty to carry a tool that is not designed for use on spiders, but for pre-empting unjust harm by humans? Either way, the man is a danger to others in his current place of employment, at least. Chris White needs therapy – and, until he is healed, he ought to be shadowed by armed guards to track him wherever he goes, to protect others from him and his phobic overreactions to spiders.

  5. If I had to decide whether to fire him, a lot would depend on the extent to which I thought this act represented the kind of person Chris White was. Arachnophobia is a type of mental disorder, and if that’s all this was — an inappropriate reaction to a fake spider — I would be willing to believe he just had a very bad day, and maybe with careful supervision he could remain on the job. There would be lots of conditions.

    A lot would depend on what I knew of him and how the people around him reacted. If his coworkers were sympathetic, saying things like, “Poor Chris! Oh my God, he freaked out so bad!” then I’d be inclined to give him another chance. But if they acted like this was just the extreme end of his typical behavior, or if there were other indications that he had anger management or impulse control issues, or if he had behaved aggressively toward coworkers before, then he’d have to go.

    He’d also have to go if other workers were uncomfortable working with him. Better to let him go than have them quit. If someone’s got to go, let it be the guy who was waving the gun around.

    • Perhaps he shouldn’t be fired, but the firearms offense should be filed. Why do prosecutors get a pass when they break the law? If I had pulled a firearm for no justified reason in the prosecutor’s office, I would be in jail facing serious charges. At the very least, they would decide wether or not to allow me to keep my concealed carry license (and probably not). It doesn’t matter if he this is because of a psychological issue or not. If you get a pass on endangering others because of psychological issues, then we should just forget about all the mass shootings from the last 20 years.

  6. If the sight of an obviously fake spider bothered him that much, he should have turned around and walked away. Later, he could explain to a co-worker that he had a bad reaction (per some childhood incident, most likely) and politely asked that the arachnid be removed. Who would have refused him? His reaction was over the top, no matter what his alleged phobia, and his pulling out a firearm entirely inexcusable.

  7. Thre things: (1) Spiders are Halloween decorations because it is one hallowed tradition to scare people for the holiday. (Begging-with-menaces for candy is the other) Ghosts are friendly, witches are magical housewives and zombies are tops of the pop, but spiders are . . . ooo… real. (2) The gun is irrelevant to the ethics of this situation. If he’d been behind the wheel of a forklift or on an airplane full of passengers or slicing the Thanksgiving turkey when he spotted a paper spider and flipped out, his reaction should have been irrational enough to suspect a possible danger to others, and as other commenters suggested, a mandatory psych evaluation is warranted. Anger is a common expression of fear in phobic people — in all of us, especially when embarrassed — but such an aberrant reaction is not. But White was suspended only a couple of days ago, over three weeks after the incident. Why? because some employees “were still upset.” (3) Jack, I know it takes you a while to sift through your email — pity poor Santa! — but I think you either haven’t checked mine, some timely for you, for almost a month or WordPress is once again engaged in wanton destruction.

    • [I’m just behind, SP. I’ve got a typo file of your catches, and am devoting a couple hours to day to the back-up. Your assistance is invaluable]

      Why just spiders, though? Black cats I get, but spiders are favored over centipedes, snakes, roaches, worms, scorpions…

      • Thanks for the update; I know you’re busy.

        Scary and living in your home is one thing, disgusting is another …. or it could be all in the eyes. Have you ever looked into a spider’s eyes? Up close?

        (full disclosure): I always leave at least one Pholcidae (Cellar spider) web alone so it can eat other spiders, insects and especially mosquitoes. I hate mosquitoes. Even thinking about a mosquito whining around the house makes my mosquito-attracting blood boil. I’m going to get my weapon of choice right now, and load it, and wait in the dark until I hear one . . . .

      • I think it’s because spiders make spider webs and creepy places like tombs are dark and supposedly filled with spider webs. Plus spider webs are supposed to be creepy to walk into in a dark place like a tomb or a basement. It’s the webs.

    • Addendum: it’s not WordPress, it’s 1) the time of year. I am both researching new seminars and teaching them, and though I am a habitual multi tasker, fixing typos after they’ve slipped by me really does slaughter my train of thought. I’ve been used to picking them off during the day because it must be done AND I hate it, but lately it’s been too disruptive, I’m going to see if just setting aside a period to do nothing but helps. 2) As if my typing wasn’t bad enough, both my laptop and PC are dying. When I travel, I’m stuck on my PC, which has already crashed badly 3 times, and A. requires me to slam each key or it doesn’t register (in this post, “see” came out “se”), B. the curser jumps, so I’ll be typing a sentence and find out that the words ended up in the middle of an earlier section, C. “undo” and delete only work intermittently.

      • I’m so sorry I said anything. I take it all back. Damn. If you were a progressiveliberalist, you could probably get a new free PC and laptop from the govmint for performing a public service. Though they might not immediately clearly recognize your blog as such perhaps maybe.

      • “B. the curser jumps, so I’ll be typing a sentence and find out that the words ended up in the middle of an earlier section…”

        Yeah, happens to me on my laptop all the time. This happens when I rest my wrists on the edge of the machine. Stupid tech gremlins.

      • You might have to “nuke” your computers. It’s a pain, but it should make them like new, or close to it, as long as it’s not hardware at fault. I’m talking about formatting the drives, reloading the OS and all programs, after backing up all the files you want to keep.

  8. I have a friend who is so afraid of moths that she once jumped out of my car (I barely had time to stop) and began screaming until I could get the moth out. She works in a high security level position for a three letter agency. Then again, she doesn’t own a gun so I guess it’s okay.

  9. “The rational response to such a duty would be, “Oh, the hell with it. Let’s skip to Thanksgiving.””

    No good. I have meliagrisphobia (fear of turkeys).

  10. The comments here are thought provoking and well-reasoned. He pulled a gun out in a workplace (loaded or not is irrelevant), and threatened to blast Halloween decorations. Whether he faces criminal charges or loss of this carry permit are irrelevant, too. The question, to me, is this: He is a prosecutor, held to high standards of conduct. Would this incident cause others to doubt his abilities as a prosecutor and co-worker. My answers are: “yes, and yes”. He needs to be fired, even if he is a really nice guy and this was an isolated incident.

    Drawing a pistol in the presence of others while at work should result in an immediate meeting with the exit sign. Co-workers had no idea if the firearm was loaded and, frankly, they should not have to take a step back and wonder if Chris decided to pull his clip out. Even if he did it in jest it shows a total lack of judgment. He would be gone.


      • Oh these utter cultural differences.

        For lack of better terms, we’re a firearms “heavy” workplace. A month or two doesn’t go buy that someone doesn’t bring their new gun to work to let others check it out.

        When someone is considering a new pistol they often ask to see everyone else’s just to get a feel for the different models. Yet not one person there would flip out over trivium…

        No brandishing involved. Nothing showy. Everyone knows everyone else carries. And no one is nervous…

        I just don’t get it.

        • I remember my friends and I walking through the center of Colchester, CT back when I was a kid with slung shotguns or rifles, going to the woods, and no one would bat an eye. These days, I couldn’t imagine trying that here without the National Guard getting deployed. Freud was right about an irrational fear of weapons and emotional underdevelopment.

  11. I am irrationally freaked out by spiders. If I see even a small real one, I won’t sleep until I’ve killed it, from a distance, as if at any moment it could leap out at me and, I dunno, karate kick me in the face I guess. If one surprises me up close, I will actually duck and run a safe distance away. It’s a little embarrassing, and even I don’t understand it. I love snakes, scorpions and everything else just fine. It’s just spiders. They’re the worst.

    But I can’t imagine freaking out over a fake spider. Those don’t scare me at all, unless you can fool me for a second into believing it’s real. Waving a gun at obviously fake spiders seems insane to me. Maybe I don’t have actual arachnophobia.

    • I also suffer from mild to medium discomfort around spiders. My method of dealing with them I learned from James Bond (Dr. No, and I find that scene the most hilarious in the series, and that includes the Moore and Dalton movies.)

        • It’s true though… The worst fears of the anti-2nd amendment crowd are true. Just as soon as guns are available they are misused.

          I know my wife and I usually resolve arguments with shootouts (shoots-out?) in the house…man replacing drywall is getting expensive. The toddler doesn’t fall asleep unless cuddling a Glock. I barely make it to work in the hail of bullets coming from all directions.

  12. Apparently the spiders were wearing NRA T-shirts.

    But seriously, when does “bad judgment” become “dangerous psychosis”? It is at least possible that he is clinically reality-challenged, unable to see any distinction between a printed picture of a gun, an actual gun, a rubber spider, a real spider, or a man-eating tiger.

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