There is an interesting crime being investigated in New York. Chinese immigrants are giving money to people who threaten that, if they do not pay, they will be cursed. The question is why this is a crime since the threat is based on superstition and cannot actually harm the individuals.
The Chinese immigrants are paying to ward off a so-called “blessing.”
Some accounts do indicate that the con artists have followed people home that could be viewed as stalking or menacing. However, the threat itself is rather hard to fit into a criminal code. If I say that I will wish you spontaneously combust unless paid money, is that an prosecutable crime?
Police are treating this as a con game, but what is the con? This is not like wrapping a hundred dollar bill around a stack of one dollar bills. We have televangelists who sell blessed clothes and prayers to donors with the clear suggestion of divine intervention in a positive way. Is that a con?
The pay-or-curse con is dependent on someone believing that they can be cursed based on religious or cultural superstition. Would it be a defense for the con man to say that he never had the ability to curse the person in a defense of impossibility? Alternatively, would it be a defense to say that he did believe it — making this a first amendment issue?
Usually a con is the false promise of giving someone a false product like a fake gold watch or an empty envelope in exchange for money. Here you are offering something of no value — a promise not to curse — in exchange for money.
To prosecute this practice, police would have to distinguish between accepting money for positive prayers and accepting money for negative prayers. That places the police in the business of enforcing religious and cultural beliefs. What if these same individuals now offer to pray not to be cursed for money?
Consider the curse that has loomed over my life since birth. The curse of the Billy Goat was placed on the Chicago Cubs during the World Series in 1945 after the owner of Billy Goat Tavern, Billy Sianis, was asked to leave Wrigley Field because his pet goat smelled. Sianis shouted “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” The Cubs have not won a National League pennant in 104 years as a result. If Sianis offered to lift the curse for money, would that have been extortion? What if I threaten a curse on the White Sox unless I am paid cash? I am a Cubs fan by birth and have all types of Chicago objects that could be used to transmit bad juju like wearing both Wolfy’s and Fluky’s teeshirts – an unholy combination of Northside and Southside hot dog stands.
It will be interesting to see any actual charge that comes out of the Chinese curse cases. The most obvious would be abuse of the elderly which would be based not on the curse but the abuse of a person of advanced age. That would seem a better basis than policing superstition.