- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2000

The Elian Gonzalez case defies a satisfactory resolution. It implicates irreconcilable visions of the core significance of life.

One conceives of reason, freedoms of the mind, and the quest for moral wisdom as the essence of human existence between ashes to ashes and dust to dust. That vision is captured in Socrates' preaching to his Athenian jury that the unexamined life is not worth living; that a man has only one thing to consider in performing any action; that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly like a good man or a bad one. Shakespeare expressed that idea vividly in Hamlet: "What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time, Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more. Sure, he that made us with such large discourse, Looking before and after, gave us not, That capability and god-like reason, To fust in us unused."

A competing vision exalts family unity and loyalty above all else, even insisting that betrayal of a spouse, parent, or child is more morally reprehensible than treason. That conception places the emotions and passions of love and affection above reason or intellectual inquiry in the hierarchy of human values.

The life of the mind and the life of love in the best of all possible worlds seldom if ever require a divorce. They generally coexist in the same person with but modest cognitive dissonance in free countries like the United States.

Elian's asylum case is agonizing because a reasonable coexistence seems chimerical. His father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, is clearly loving and psychologically supportive, a critical element in the mental and emotional health of a 6-year-old child whose mother died under traumatic circumstances. In an affidavit filed with the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Gustavo I. Cadavid, a psychiatrist practicing with the U.S. Public Health Service, spoke volumes indescribing their reunion: "Upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Elian showed eagerness to see his father as the airplane approached the hanger. As we taxied close to parked cars, Elian looked anxious and impatient that he could not yet see his father and asked where his father was. When his father exited one of the cars, Elian saw him and started smiling and pointing at his father. He then started waving to his father and seemed frustrated that his father could not see him… . Once his father entered the airplane, Elian hugged his father, looked very happy, and began to cry. As Elian's father carried him off the plane, they held each other tightly, and Elian rested his head on his father's shoulder." Even Hollywood would be challenged to beat that clutching father-son vignette.

Its corroboration of mutual love and affection does not seem aberrational. Writing in the April 23 New York Times Magazine, Tim Golden meticulously scrutinizes Elian's extended family, both in Cuba and the United States, and reports nothing that could indict Juan Miguel as an unfit or abusive father ("Just Another Cuban Family Saga"). Should that settle the asylum case in favor of the father and a return to Fidel Castro's Cuba? Probably yes, if only Elian's childhood were at stake. But there is more.

What happens when Elian graduates into adolescence and adulthood? The spirit of inquiry and a craving for intellectual emancipation comes naturally as maturation arrives, unless artificially stunted or killed by indoctrination or coercion. Anyone who has raised a child can testify to that truism. And it is the special reasoning capacity of the species and consequent endowment of moral choice that distinguishes humans from lower forms of life. Thus, Thomas Jefferson trumpeted: "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Or, as British sage Sam Johnson put it, there is the same difference between the learned and unlearned as between the living and the dead.

If denied asylum and returned to Cuba, Elian's freedom to think, speak and learn will inescapably shrivel or die as he ages and flirts with political ideas. Cuba's human rights record on that score is notorious, and is confirmed by every independent human rights group that has surveyed the Cuban landscape, not just by the United States. Only last week, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights for a second successive year condemned Cuba's suppression of political opposition and detention of dissidents. And Elian's father seems an unlikely candidate to defend his right to think. As reported by Mr. Golden, Juan Miguel joined the Union of Young Communists at age 15, eagerly attended political rallies, audited the "revolutionary morale" of his comrades, and celebrated his full Communist Party membership as "the proudest thing that can happen to you."

Suppose Elian craves flight from Mr. Castro's mental imprisonment. A New York Times reporter, Mirta Ojita, one of 125,000 escapees during the 1980 Mariel boat lift, provided a chilling description, reminiscent of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, of what Elian is likely to confront ("You Are Going to El Norte," New York Times Magazine, April 23): "The government staged riots called actos de republico street rallies in which neighbors turned against neighbors, harassing and tormenting those who wanted to leave the country. The victims were often pelted with rocks, tomatoes and eggs. Windows were shattered. Doors were knocked down. Some people were killed, dragged through the streets as trophies to intolerance and hate. Sometimes people trapped inside their homes chose to kill themselves rather than face their tormentors."

The federal asylum statute under review by the court of appeals offers sanctuary to "any person" (without age limitation) with a "well-founded fear of persecution on account of … political opinion," but not necessarily an imminent fear. Elian's case seems to fit that category like a glove. But should he be wrenched from his father on that account? Our most cherished values give conflicting messages.

Bruce Fein is a lawyer and free-lance writer specializing in legal issues.

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