Last month the prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, declared war on drugs, vowing to rid his country of the scourge within three months. The goal is ambitious, if not impossible. Human rights groups reportedly express fear that the campaign has become reckless and dangerous; they claim that the government has adopted a shoot-to-kill policy. Drugs are a terrible threat to society, but Thailand must endeavor, as should all countries, to ensure that the methods it uses to fight crime are not worse than the evil it confronts.

It is estimated that Thailand has 2.5 million drug users, ranging from glue sniffers to heroin addicts. Thai police estimate that 800 million to 1 billion methamphetamine tablets enter the country every year, or about 12 tablets for every Thai citizen. Hundreds of thousands of Thais are thought to be dependent on a drug known locally as “ya ba” (“crazy medicine”).

In the antidrug “eye-for-an-eye” operation launched last month, Mr. Thaksin has declared war on the criminal gangs that smuggle and sell drugs, demanding that they be given no quarter. His no-compromise approach is in keeping with his persona of a “can-do” leader. It has also sparked fears that the government is encouraging a policy of shooting first — without asking questions later — when dealing with those suspected of selling illegal drugs.

By the end of February, police said 1,035 suspects had been killed and 29,501 arrested. Incredibly, police claim that they shot only 31 people, all in self-defense; the rest were said to have been killed by gangs to silence potential informants.

Fears of government-condoned extrajudicial executions have been fueled by the prime minister’s reported statement that “murder is not an unusual fate for wicked people, and the public should not be alarmed by their death.” International human-rights groups have protested the rising death toll, and the United Nations has joined the chorus of alarm. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights is “deeply concerned” about the operation and the “allegations of excessive use of force resulting in extrajudicial executions.”

Mr. Thaksin is unbowed. Not only has he vowed that the government will not back down, but he also has invited the U.N. to send observers to monitor the campaign. His government has also established panels to review complaints of police misconduct — concerning both involvement in the drug trade and excessive use of force.

In addition, the government has begun to address the other side of the problem. Earlier this month, it set up rehabilitation programs for the country’s addicts, about 5 percent of the population of 63 million. The justice minister promised that no criminal charges would be pressed against individuals who voluntarily enter those programs.

It is tempting to look the other way when trying to solve intractable problems. After all, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” Few issues are as horrifying or seem to be as insoluble as drug addiction. Yet it is important to ask how far should a society go in its attempts to fight evil? At what point does the remedy become worse than the cure? This is not a question for the Thais alone to consider.

The perennial question about ethics and morality has taken on a new relevance and urgency in recent months. The international campaign against terrorism has forced citizens to ask what rights are to be afforded terrorists and their sympathizers. Is torture justified when innocent lives hang in the balance? How much should interrogators respect international conventions when, say, an individual has knowledge of a terrorist attack that could claim thousands of lives? Do the laws of war apply to individuals who do not respect those conventions themselves?

To say that desperate times demand desperate measures is not enough; there are always circumstances that encourage us to bend the laws. Philosophers, moralists and theologians acknowledge that there are times when those detours are permitted. The “just war” is one such exception. But it is essential that citizens — individuals responsible for the governments that act on behalf of the people — recognize that these are exceptions rather than the rule.

We must hold ourselves to higher standards than those we combat, for that higher moral standard gives us an edge over our enemies. Tolerance and understanding is not weakness, but a source of strength. There must be something more than fear that sustains us. The knowledge and certainty that we live by a higher ethical and moral standard is just that.

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