THE RUSH to make a symbol out of Elian Gonzalez--the 6-year-old Cuban boy who was rescued at sea after the boat in which his mother and several other people sought to flee Cuba sank--politicizes the child's tragedy and should have no place in discussion of his future. Fidel Castro has threatened mass demonstrations if the boy is not returned immediately to his father in Cuba. Meanwhile, Cuban exiles have made him a poster child for anti-Castro activities. Footage of Elian dressed in a Cuban American National Foundation T-shirt and surrounded with toys is a not-so-subtle way of demonstrating that he is better off here with some more distant relatives than with his father in Cuba. Lost in the politics is the question that ought to decide the matter and that, we would hope, the courts in Florida will focus on in considering it. As President Clinton put it yesterday, that question is "What would be best for the child?"

Whether it is better to grow up with one's father in a tyranny or with extended family in a democracy is not a question that lends itself to decision on the basis of strict principles. It can be answered only on a case-by-case basis in light of all the relevant facts. Our own sense is that, for a 6-year-old who has just lost his mother and been stranded at sea for more than 24 hours on an inner tube, the personal is more important than the political. Reunification with his father seems as if it should be presumptively the desired outcome. And if the boy's father wants to live with him in Cuba, that is his decision.

But that's a big if. The fact that his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, says he wants the boy returned to Cuba--given the incentives any Cuban has not to embarrass his government internationally--is not necessarily conclusive. Before Elian Gonzalez is returned because of his father's presence there, it should be clear that his father would not prefer to come to this country to be with his son. Some procedure has to be devised to make sure that the interests of family reunification don't cost young Elian the freedoms for which he has already paid so dearly.