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WASHINGTON — Drone strikes, by their nature, are bound to kill innocent civilians. It is all too easy to ignore this ugly fact — and the dubious morality of the whole enterprise — until the unfortunate victims happen to be Westerners.

Only then does “collateral damage” become big news and an occasion for public sorrow. President Obama acknowledged Thursday that a January strike in Pakistan against a suspected al-Qaeda compound killed two men who were being held as hostages by the terrorist group — Warren Weinstein, an American, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian.

“I profoundly regret what happened,” Obama said. “On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.”

Obama said he took “full responsibility” for the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto. The president’s demeanor in revealing the tragedy was grim.

I have no doubt that Obama’s regret is sincere. Nor do I doubt that every attempt is made to avoid killing innocents, or that the president has ordered fewer drone strikes recently than in previous years. But history tells us that good-faith effort is not enough to guarantee that sound moral choices are being made.

This is, put simply, war by assassination. Drone attacks have a chillingly antiseptic nature: One minute, the targeted individuals are going about their business, nefarious or otherwise. Perhaps they notice the sound of an aircraft overhead. The drone’s operator, sitting at a console that may be thousands of miles away, presses a button. Kaboom.

If all goes as planned, there are only terrorists — and no civilians — in the building or vehicle being targeted. But war never goes entirely as planned, not even war conducted by remote control. Targeting is based on intelligence, which can never be perfect. Will nearby structures that have nothing to do with terrorism be damaged or destroyed? Did the target’s youngest child stay home from school that day with a fever? Did his wife’s cousin unexpectedly drop by?

Or, as in the present case, are hostages being held at the compound that happens to be in the drone’s crosshairs? Obviously, neither Obama nor anyone in the chain of command knew that Weinstein and Lo Porto were in what turned out to be the wrong place at the wrong time. But my point is that some degree of collateral human damage should be considered the rule, not the exception. According to human rights organizations, hundreds of civilians have been killed in drone attacks so far.

Weinstein, 73, was a contractor working for the U.S. Agency for International Development when he was kidnapped in Lahore, Pakistan, in August 2011. Lo Porto, 39, was a humanitarian aid worker who was kidnapped in 2012.

It was also disclosed that the drone strike that took the lives of the two hostages also killed a U.S. citizen, Ahmed Farouq, who was reportedly an al-Qaeda militant. In a separate strike in the same region, the administration said, another American — Adam Gadahn, described as a prominent figure in al-Qaeda — was killed.

Farouq and Gadahn voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way by taking up arms against their country. But while killing a U.S. citizen without due process can be justified, it is a measure that should never be taken lightly.

Nor can the decision to conduct drone strikes within the sovereign territory of a nation with which we are not at war. Pakistan is a U.S. ally — although the nature of the relationship is obviously complicated. Osama bin Laden lived in comfortable exile not far from Pakistan’s capital, and the remote regions near the Afghanistan border — where al-Qaeda and the Taliban have found refuge — are largely beyond the government’s control.

Obama claims the right to order drone strikes against terrorist targets essentially anywhere he believes such action is necessary — Yemen, Somalia, Libya and perhaps other countries as well. And of course declared U.S. military operations are underway in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Scores of countries operate drones, mostly for surveillance and other nonlethal purposes. The technology for arming these pilotless aircraft is within the capabilities of any industrialized nation. What will we think when China or Russia begins defending its national interest with missile-firing drones?

And what about the moral question? Targeting a terrorist when you know there’s a good chance of also killing his family can be effective. But that doesn’t make it right.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is [email protected].

© 2015, Washington Post Writers Group

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