Given the choice, we would much rather rely on the courts to decide the fate of Elian Gonzalez than the Clinton administration, which had the audacity last week to issue a diagnosis of the boy from a doctor who never actually came within 1,000 miles of him.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, the government's adviser on the Elian case, said he believes the Miami relatives who have custody of the 6-year-old have been "psychologically abusive." Meanwhile, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, in a much more rational vein, wondered aloud why no one has talked with the child. "It appears that never have INS officials attempted to interview plaintiff about his own wishes," they wrote in an order that allows Elian to stay in the United States until his case is decided. "It is not clear that the INS, in finding plaintiff's father to be the only proper representative, considered all of the relevant factors -- particularly the child's separate and independent interests in seeking asylum."Those "separate and independent interests " are at the heart of this matter, but they seem to be blending into the background for many observers. Florida's Cuban community has been losing the public relations war in recent weeks. Opinion polls show most Americans find their rallies and chants near Elian's Miami home to be boorish and unseemly. That may be because most Americans have no idea what it is like to live under the authoritarian rule of someone like Fidel Castro. They either are unaware or discount the accuracy of official reports that describe human rights abuses on the island.

Sure, it seems natural for a motherless child to be returned to his father. But it is quite unnatural for a child to be returned to the custody of a state that grants him no freedoms. Castro has offered Elian a spacious mansion filled with toys and amusements, a gift the dictator may revoke at any time. The United States, on the other hand, can offer Elian his own life and his own opportunities, the same irrevocable rights it grants all its people.

Despite the fact that Elian's father has traveled to the United States, no one can be sure he is in fact speaking candidly about his wishes for the child, or that he does not also concern himself with those vexing "separate and independent interests" that led Elian's mother to sacrifice her own life on the sea.

As the court noted, this case has a precedent. In 1985, 12-year-old Walter Polovchak resisted being returned to the Soviet Union. A federal court then granted him asylum despite his age. In that same spirit, the 11th Circuit Court believes Elian should have his own asylum hearing. That makes sense. Until then, he ought to stay put to avoid further complicating the situation.