Outside the auditorium, it was a typical late summer evening at Anne Arundel Community College. A young couple sat under a tree, holding hands and sharing a Coke, while other students dressed in jeans and sweat shirts strolled purposefully toward the library.
But the serenity was shattered inside the modern auditorium. Rows of armed soldiers stood silhouetted in the glare of spotlights, gunshots rang out and scores of student protesters dropped bleeding to the ground.
With these graphic descriptions, David Aikman, a 46-year-old foreign correspondent for "Time" magazine, transformed the dimly lighted room into a huge square in China filled with students demonstrating for democracy.
The 18-year veteran journalist with the weekly news magazine transported an audience of about 100 students and a few senior citizens Thursday night to the heart of the crushed protest movement.
"Twenty-four hours later, there was nothing but a pile of debris, bullet marks and blood that was a trace of the carnage," said Aikman, who witnessed the June 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Aikman also inserted a chilling footnote about the latest international crisis. He had just returned two days earlier from reporting on Saudi Arabia, where tensions are rising amid the U.S. buildup and oil embargo against Iraq.
"It's very, very tense, and there's a strong likelihood of a conflict in the next few weeks," he said in answer to a question about the Gulf crisis.
In his eyewitness account, Aikman tried to describe why the Tiananmen Square massacre captured the world's imagination even more than equally brutal mass killings in Burma and Syria.
He concluded that the students' idealistic struggle for freedom touched people across the world.
"Even jaded Western journalists could not help but be touched by the naive optimism of China's youth at Tiananmen Square," he wrote in the opening chapters of "Massacre in Beijing," a Time book published in September 1989.
Contrasted with the government's crackdown, the peaceful demonstration of thousands of students from universities across China became "one of the great moments in the struggle for freedom in the 20th Century," Aikman told the audience Thursday night.
A former "Time" bureau chief in China, Aikman flew to Beijing the day before tanks filled with soldiers wielding AK-47s rolled into the city. Relations between the Chinese government and the students camping out in Tiananmen Square had soured in the weeks after martial law was declared May 20 by Prime Minister Li Peng. Sensing the growing chance of a violent confrontation, Aikman's editors sent him to cover the protest.
When Aikman arrived, thousands of weary students and their sympathizers were entrenched in pup tents spread across the square. He walked from the Great Hall of the People to see three hunger strikers who were refusing food to rally the flagging spirits of the protesters.
The next day, troops began pouring into the city. Although Beijing residents who were united behind the students had successfully blocked tanks in the past, the hardened soldiers drafted to squelch the protest were unstoppable. They fired randomly into crowds rushing to set up roadblocks, killing bystanders, "little old ladies and children on the streets," Aikman said.
"I had a nasty feeling about 3 o'clock that the (People's Army) was actually getting serious," he said. "Soldiers were pulling off their heavy belts and smashing students' faces with the buckles. By 10 o'clock that night, the toughest army units were moving in on the city, smashing their way through every intersection."
Aikman said he was standing on the balcony of the Beijing Hotel near Tiananmen Square about 4 a.m. when the final attack began. The lights illuminating the square suddenly went dark, and the warnings over the loudspeakers fizzled into a whine. Against the darkness, spotlights shone on the glinting helmets of rows of soldiers who seemed to materialize out of thin air.
"Between 4:30 and 6:30, there was intense shooting," he recalled. "The first tanks charged on the square. Some students escaped. One small group was chased by armored personnel . . . and shot near the music conservatory."
Two days later, the People's Army had seized control of the center of the city. Frightened residents who only a day earlier had urged Aikman to tell the story to the world were silent.
But although the Chinese government crushed the student uprising -- killing from 1,000 to 5,000 people, according to varying unofficial estimates -- Aikman said he believes democratic reforms are inevitable. Much of Beijing came to identify with the students' calls for an end to the widespread corruption in the Communist Party and for rights of free speech and press.
"The China of today seems largely the same, but it's not," he said. "Sooner or later, democratic reforms will come to China."
His stirring account and conclusion impressed the students who gathered for the free lecture. Several said they learned more from the speech than reading news accounts of the massacre.
Megan Hedetniemi, a 20-year-old liberal arts student at Anne Arundel Community College, said she was inspired by "the sense of student unity that you didn't get from the news."
"It was really in-depth," agreed her friend, Linda McBee, 19, who is studying math and computer science at University of Maryland-Baltimore County. "I learned a lot that I didn't get from the real brief news clippings."
Aikman said he enjoys lecturing between assignments. When asked where he might be headed next, the expert on troubled spots shrugged and then grinned: "Probably the Middle East."