SECRETARY OF STATE George Shultz is a man preoccupied by international terrorism.

He sees it as a general threat to world order, a direct challenge to American foreign policy interests and a specific danger to American diplomats -- the U.S. embassy in Beirut has been bombed twice on his watch, and threats to other diplomats abound. Mr. Shultz has led the Reagan administration's campaign against the domestic and international faces of terrorism from a position considerably out in front of other officials, including the president. Thursday in New York, he went out in front a step further, declaring that the United States should stop playing "the Hamlet of nations" and use force as necessary abroad, to preempt and to retaliate, even if the evidence is not of "courtroom" caliber and even if American servicemen and innocent civilians are killed.

Mr. Shultz was on the mark in emphasizing intelligence, planning, coordination with allies and constant vigilance. This point was being underlined as he spoke by a new Senate report blaming the second Beirut embassy bombing on a "tragically simple" failure not to block access to the building. Secretary Shultz has a former Marine officer's intense feeling of responsibility for the men under him who have died in Lebanon. It is easy to understand how someone who has failed to win full official sanction for his views may, in his more frustrated moments, see his country as an indecisive Hamlet.

But Mr. Shultz has gone too far. We have previously objected to the reach of some of the domestic anti-terrorist legislation he favored. Here we assert that he has simply not made the case that international terrorism is so immense and overwhelming a menace that it compels the United States to -- in the name of the rule of law -- take the law into its own hands on foreign soil. This is so even in "gray areas" (Lebanon) where lack of a local authority and the existence of nearby sanctuary give terrorists play.

Who thinks terrorism of this sort can be extinguished by a bold strike or two, or that such strikes do not create new perils for other Americans? The secretary lauds Israel's example, but Israel is caught in a seemingly endless cycle of terror and counter-terror. Who believes America's friends, let alone its citizens, will stand still while the United States attempts to deter or punish terrorists in foreign countries, striking without a certain target and killing innocents in the process?

As for sanctions, Syria is cause of some of the American agony in Lebanon, but Syria is now classified by Mr. Shultz's State Department, correctly, as "helpful" in steadying Lebanon. For similarly practical considerations, the department is about to resume diplomatic relations with Iraq, a nation not long ago officially proscribed as a supporter of international terrorism. Then there is the embarrassing question of what the United States is supporting in Nicaragua.

Terrorism is hideous. So far for the United States, however, it is only one care among many. It must be treated by means that do not add to the damages. One purpose of terrorism is to provoke democracies to cast aside their traditions of law and civility and to take on, in some degree, the manner of their attackers. No sensible democracy will let this happen.