The phone rings: "Your 6-year-old son has just been found in the ocean, shipwrecked, clinging to an inner tube. His mother drowned. He is now in a Miami hospital."

Do you respond:

(1) "I'll be there as soon as I possibly can." Or

(2) "Send him back to me. I demand it. "

In an otherwise softball interview on "Nightline," Elian Gonzalez's father was asked repeatedly why he didn't go to Miami to see his son. He never answered the question. He simply repeated his demands for his son's return with ever greater vehemence, finally threatening the Miami relatives with whom Elian is staying.

No one knows the reasons for Juan Gonzalez's lack of urgency. He claims his son is the subject of not only kidnapping but also child abuse. If your son were kidnapped and abused, and the U.S. attorney general publicly declared you were free to come see him, would you stay home?

Juan Gonzalez is staying home. Why? Does he simply lack true affection for the child of a previous marriage? Is he so intimidated by Castro's government that he is just mouthing the official line? Or is he one of those political simpletons so imbued with Fidelism (millions cried, genuinely cried, at the funerals of Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung) that he would rather let his abused son languish than give the slightest political advantage to the United States by flying to see him?

We don't know. But whatever the reason, should Elian be trusted to such a man? The issue of Elian's return to Cuba has been framed as a struggle between the political cynicism of anti-Castro Cuban exiles and the sweet ties of affection between father and son.

What about the ties of affection between mother and son? If you frame the issue as a contest between a father's wishes and that of more distant relatives in Miami, you have rigged the conclusion. But the Miami cousins are doing no more than giving life to the dying wishes of Elian's mother. She risked, and gave, her life to bring him to freedom. Do her wishes count for nothing?

Moreover, Elian will not return to a quiet life with father in a little Cuban village. That might once have been a nice choice. But it no longer is. Fidel Castro has decided that it will not be.

He has quite cynically made Elian a symbol of Fidelism. Posters proclaim it: "You are our symbol. Our child hero." With his "spontaneous" mass demonstrations, a Stalinist specialty, Fidel has turned a little boy into an icon.

What kind of life awaits such an icon? Like the child heroes of Stalin, honored for betraying and denouncing their parents, Elian will be raised to be a model Fidelist, a vindication of the revolution, a validator of a father's political loyalty over a mother's treason.

Castro's regime is an abject failure at every level. A half-million Cubans await the lottery that allows a precious 20,000 annually to emigrate to freedom. Such a regime requires constant revalidation by means of the kind of mass mobilization Fidel has orchestrated around Elian.

Once returned, Elian becomes a precious political commodity for Fidel, subject to far more indoctrination, far more surveillance than even the average Cuban subject.

Imagine him at age 18. Raised here, if he decided to return to Cuba, he would be free to go. It would be a one-day story. America's self-image would survive quite nicely.

If he were raised in Cuba, it is unimaginable that he would be allowed even to contemplate leaving. He would be a child of the state.

Elian should be allowed to stay here. First, to honor the wishes of his dead mother. Second, because here he could actually have a reasonably normal life, and not become the symbol and tool of a police state.

What to do? Congress has it right. Grant him citizenship.

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches has denounced this attempt to "impose citizenship" on Elian. What a strange locution. American citizenship is a badge of freedom so deeply and universally coveted that people from the South China Sea to the Florida Straits take to perilous boats in the distant hope of achieving it.

American citizenship is a license to liberty. An imposition? Tell that to those who died in its defense--the boys at Normandy, for example. Or in its pursuit--Elian's mother.

When Elian was brought ashore, my first instinct was to wish him returned to his father. Given how the father acts, however, and how Fidel and his American acolytes not only use him now but will invariably play on him throughout his life, there really is no choice. Keep him here. Make him an American. Honor his mother.